21/10/10 - 28/10/10 20 °C
Thursday was a moving day so after a late breakfast we packed up and lugged the bags to the station for our midday train to Florence via Milano. Again you have to love the late checkout in Europe. The train from Milano to Florence was a surprise as we were offered (free) beverages, Liz thought it was great as she drank down some champagne and munched on the snacks. The train system in Italy is punctual but the quality of train varies considerably, the fast trains are well appointed and have quality service while the regional trains are generally old, with stained seats and smell bad and that’s in first class!
Anyway we arrived in Pisa after 2 changes of train but the entire journey only took about 4 hours which isn’t too bad. After booking into our hotel (The la Torre) near the station we decided to walk to the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was a pleasant walk of about 1.2km through some of the new town and much of the old with many of the streets were closed to traffic – probably because they were so narrow that cars and people wouldn’t fit.
We eventually made it to the Tower which is freaky because a building that size just shouldn’t lean at that angle. As with all the famous sites the place was packed with people and surrounded by souvenir stalls and illegal hawkers (mostly selling watches). The area around the tower was filled with people except the grass areas which was a no go area – crazy! Many people were taking photos showing someone holding the tower up (see my effort below). We dropped into the local tourist office located near the Tower only to find out Pisa had nothing much else to offer.
Friday we decided to head for Livorno about 20 minutes east of Pisa and on the coast. It’s actually an important port with many cruise ships visiting, the departure point for ferries to Barcelona, a major port for the importation of cars and other stuff and they also make luxury yachts. We walked from the station using Liz’s iPhone as the guide (we had asked for tourist information) which led us about 1.5km out of our way – I wouldn’t say we were lost as we knew exactly where we were but the tourist information centre wasn’t at the end of the walk. We reprogrammed the iPhone to go to the Grande Plaza which was supposed to be near the Tourist Information Centre and this time we were successful reaching it after almost 2 hours walking around.
We decided that after 2 hours walking it would be nice to sit in the open top bus and be shown around the area with the audio guide telling us about the important stuff. While it was a little cool in the breeze on the bus, the sun was shining so it was a nice tour only taking about 45 minutes. On the advice of the girl at the Tourist Centre we visited a local restaurant located on a canal in a grotto, at first we weren’t sure about the place, which was nowhere near anything else (real backstreets) but it turned out to be a very nice place with good food – Liz did the pasta while I had spaghetti with tomato sauce and Scampi au gratin.
After lunch we walked to the clothing and covered market areas which had mainly closed down for lunch break (1.00pm until about 4.00pm) we then decided to walk back to the station to catch the trip home. However, we only made it about 3 blocks before we can across the International markets which, as the name suggests, has stalls from various countries selling their country’s products. Some had food and others clothing or souvenirs etc. Liz particularly liked the British stall which was selling crockery – she ended up adding to her collection of tea cups, sauces and plates – I’m worried that the stuff will get smashed in our travels.
We had resumed our trip back to the station when Liz began feeling ill so we caught the first train back to Pisa and returned to our hotel where Liz spent the rest of the afternoon and night tucked up in bed feeling very sick – she thinks it may have been a little food poisoning! I didn’t mind as I got to lie about and read a book, after all the walking it was a relief.
After the previous afternoon I wasn’t sure how Liz would go the next day but like the trooper she is, she was up and ready to go – couldn’t waste a day on her ‘holiday of a lifetime’. So again we caught the train this time to Florence (Ashlee highly recommended it) for the day. As always we visited the Tourist Centre, luckily it was located at the station, and got a map and an idea of what to see. To begin with we followed the crowd as they wandered though the street between the station and the Cathedral di Santa Maria in the Piazza del Duomo, this was an incredible structure and we decided to walk all the way around it to see all its sides, however, upon reaching the first side street I noticed what I thought was one or two stalls and made the huge mistake of pointing them out to Liz. It wasn’t a couple of stalls but a market – the biggest market I have ever seen. This market stretched for blocks and blocks in every direction and was selling everything, but in particular, good quality leather goods and clothing. Many of the stalls were still expensive but they’d give you 50% off! Only problem was that they wouldn’t give you the price to start with – I suggested 20 euro so with the discount it would be 10 euro but they didn’t get my humor - must have been the accent!
Liz loved it wandering about the stalls, joking with the hawkers and generally soaking it all up – I on the other hand was a little bored after the first 20 minutes as all the stalls seemed to be selling the same stuff. Liz knew she wanted to buy a new leather bag from Italy which she did at a discount of 75% off the original asking price, so the waiting and searching was worth it as she was happy with her purchase and it only took 2 hours! From the markets we walked back to the Piazza del Duomo and walked around the Cathedral before wandering down towards the river to the Piazza della Signoria which is the area surrounded by the museums and galleries. We made it to the river Fiume Arno and viewed the Ponte Vecchio, a covered bridge that has house along it.
As Liz was feeling much better we had a nice lunch in a café off the Piazza della Signoria while watching and listening to the street performers enthrall the large crowd. We also enjoyed watching the local police, they look very smart in their uniforms; but they were constantly chatting on their mobile phones and smoking their cigarettes to really appear to be “on duty” as such. After lunch we visited a bookshop to score some reading material, they cater for English much better that we cater for any other language that’s for sure, before heading for the station and the one hour 15 minute train trip back to Pisa.
Sunday is moving day and as we’d reserved our seats the day before we took out time with breakfast and packing, as the train didn’t depart until 11.00am. While the train trip was a nice journey down the west coast of Italy from Pisa to Rome I barely noticed as I read a book but Liz never wanting to miss a minute of the trip watched the scenery and water constantly. Upon arrival at Rome Termini we consulted the iPhone again for directions to our hotel, The Flower Garden, and this time the mapping was good as we only had a couple of blocks to walk.
After checking in we consulted the map given to us by the hotel and decided to check out a couple of the sites before dark. We walked around from the hotel to find the Piazza delais Repubblica with it’s amazing fountain and then proceeded towards the Trevi Fountain but somehow managed to wander past the Quirinal (residence of the President of the Republic) just at the time of the changing of the guard ceremony. Liz was very impressed as she’s now seen a number of these ceremonies in various countries and rated the Italians as the most impressive and flamboyant. The thing that impressed her the most was the fact that the band stayed after the ceremony and gave the crowd a small concert performance. Top class according to Liz.
Once the ceremony was over we, and many others, completed our walk to the famous Trevi Fountain which was as remarkable as anticipated. What wasn’t anticipated was the huge crowd of people visiting at 4.30pm on a Sunday in late October; so it took us a little while to find a spot from which we could take some photos. After the walk and the waiting we visited a gelateria for a refreshing cone of Italy’s famous ice-cream, Liz had chocolate fudge and I had choc chip and it was bellissimo!
We moved on along the crowded street looking for a Time Elevator - a 3D cinema experience that takes you back through the history of Rome – which Liz was keen to see so she could have a better understanding of the places and buildings we were going to visit over the next couple of days. While we waited we took a walk along to the large and very marble Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and while we sat on the steps outside the fence I had to laugh at the policeman who was stopping people sitting on the steps inside the fence – all of a sudden you’d hear his whistle blast a couple of time and see him waving his arms about wildly at some poor tourist who didn’t know that sitting on the stairs was a bad, bad thing.
We returned for the Time Elevator which Liz thought was really good and useful while I read the paper in the foyer (3D/aircraft simulator style experience + vertigo + ice cream = not a pretty sight/sound/smell). At the end, the light was fading fast so we decided to head back to the hotel and have a quite night.
Monday was wet so we decided to venture to Vatican City to visit the museums, St Peters Square and the Basilica along with most of the other tourists in Rome – indoor activity on a wet day. The line for the museum entry was 4 blocks long which apparently would take 2 ½ to 3 hours. All along the line hawkers were trying to get people to join tour groups (“..no waiting. In 5 minutes you’ll be inside …. You probably know the lines they use.) so Liz and I decide to give them a go and walked about a block closer to the entry to an office where 20 or so other people are waiting. We paid our money and were given the audio receiver and ear piece for the tour (so the guide didn’t have to yell she only had to speak into her microphone and we all could hear) and then we waited!!! It was only for about 15 minutes before we then walked as a group to the museum priority entry for groups and then a 30 minute wait in that queue before getting to the entry, meanwhile it started raining but we had an umbrella so that was OK. Once we made it inside we went through a security screening and then finally started the tour which turned out to be excellent as our guide seemed to be very knowledgeable, was supposedly an Art History graduate, and we were very happy with the tour.
The only problem was that the tour finished in the Sistine Chapel and from there we were suppose to go directly to the St Peter’s Basilica except we took the wrong door and ended up at the main exit to the museum. On asking the guard about the entry into the Basilica he explained that we needed to take the door at the right rear of the Sistine Chapel, so back through the museum we go eventually making it to the Chapel only to run into a very officious guard who refused to allow anyone through to the Basilica unless they were with their guide who had the paperwork and as our guide had gone through to the Basilica we had no chance, he even refuse a guide with about 30 tourists entry because she didn’t have the right paperwork! Back through the rest of the museum we go to the main exit again where we met up with the guard who had told us about the Basilica exit and he was amazed we couldn’t get through as everyone pretty much is allowed through (after all everybody has been security screened to get into the museum) as the door is always open, so we explained what happen and his response was “..so you got one of those!’
After walking through the museum twice we now had to walk around the outside of the Vatican walls to the Piazza San Pietro (St Peter’s Square) and queue to go through security screening again (luckily only about 15 minutes) before we could enter the Basilica. This is a truly amazing structure. It’s huge and the sculptures and marble work are so finely detailed, to think of the time and care the artisans needed to complete the works really put the place into perspective even without considering the religious implications of the building. Looking at all structures throughout Rome that have been named after Popes and Emperors it is easy to forget that many thousands of simple workers really did the work that resulted in the iconic structures.
It was a long day after arriving at the museum around 10.00am we were very tired by the time we walked back to the Metro at 4.00pm. The Rome metro has only 2 lines and the volume of people using these is immense so it was a squishy ride back to the main train terminal and our hotel.
Tuesday was cooking class day, having at last managed to secure 2 places in a cooking class after many attempts in various countries we were really looking forward to the experience and it was a good day for an indoor activity as it was raining again. Andrea the chef and teacher was a great bloke who had visited Australia when he was younger – he even had an Australian flag hanging on the wall in the kitchen! Our class only had 11 students which was all that could have possibly squeezed into the restaurant kitchen. We prepared, cooked and ate a 4 course meal consisting of an entrée of Potato, Leek and Chestnut soup, first main of Spinach and Ricotta ravioli with butter and sage sauce, a second main of Chicken Scaloppini and desert of Chocolate Soufflé all matched with wines. The food was based on Zero Kilometers, meaning that all the produce, including wines, were sourced locally.
After the class we walked back across Rome to our hotel as the rain had stopped. Rome is small and compact only taking about an hour to walk from one side to the other of the main attractions area. It’s also easier to walk as many streets are closed to traffic which is good as crossing the street gives a whole new meaning to taking your life in your hands! Pedestrian crossing are plentiful but drivers don’t stop unless you are on the crossing – as in right in front of their car and then they’ll head diagonally across if they think you’re not walking fast enough!!!!
Wednesday we’d booked for a walking tour of the ancient sections of the city which didn’t start until 2.00pm. So after a leisurely start to the morning, breakfast at 9.30am and laying around reading a book until midday, we boarded the metro to Spagna station which is right next to the Spanish Steps. Liz really wanted to see these and fortunately we scored a beautiful bright sunny day to visit. Liz explained that the steps were well known as they are the place to sit, hang-out and be seen. They also have an interesting fountain at the bottom which is not strange in Rome as they have fountain everywhere.
From the Spanish Steps we headed to the Colosseo (Coliseum) to join our walking tour. Our group was moderately sized at 21 people and our guide Agnes was British and had been running various tours through Rome for the past 9 years – she really knew her stuff! She didn’t stop talking for the 3 hours of the tour. We had the radio system again which was brilliant as you could hear perfectly if you were anywhere within about 100m of the guide.
We started at the Coliseum and spent almost an hour walking through the structure from top to bottom. It’s amazing how this structure and modern sport stadiums are so similar but the entertainment 2000 years ago was a little more barbaric.
After this we walked the short distance to the Roman Forum (or what’s left of it!) and strolled through the ruins while Agnes regaled us of the history and drama of the Forum throughout its history. So after about 2 hours of constant information my brain was about to explode while Liz was loving it and soaking all this information up like a sponge. I don’t think either one of us will remember much the next day.
Once we finished at the Forum we made track to the Trevi Fountain which Liz and I had visited on our first afternoon in Rome so we basically found a seat while the group took some pictures and had a pit stop (toilets and/or gelato). Next we walked to the Pantheon which is a weird building as it has massive and orate column in a square pattern at the front portico but the main building is round with a massive hemispherical dome for the room and a circular base supporting this roof. Most peculiar was the hole in the top of the domed roof which “allowed the worshipers prayers to go directly to God” – they had drain holes in the floor for when it rained. It is still a remarkable building considering the size and nature of the structure which was built with technology from around the time of 80 AD.
We finished our tour with a quick look through the Piazza Navona before departing to find our way home – unfortunately I’d left the maps and guide books at the hotel! Luckily my sense of direction was good and we made it back to the hotel with no problems at all – I was impressed by this achievement but Liz thought it was just what I was expected to do!