Friday, 19 April 2013

Pisa & Tuscany

Trip continued:

Wednesday Day 7 - We woke up, finished packing and started lugging our bags to the nearest piazza to find a taxi for the ride to the airport when we stumbled into one just outside our door.  What luck!  So we piled in and made our way to the Airport Alamo Maggiore desk to pick up the car.  Not a problem until we arrived and the lady didn't want to give us a SatNav because it wasn't on their paperwork even though it was on ours.  She tried just giving us the car without a SatNav but we argued with her and she finally "found" one under the desk when Lori told her we can't drive around without a SatNav so we don't need the car.  A little risky but it worked as she opened a drawer by her knee and gave us the SatNav.  Funny part was she didn't charge us for it then.  Kind of an odd experience as she was as nice as could be before the SatNav issue then her whole demeanour changed to borderline rude afterwards.

Once we situated ourselves in the car and programmed the SatNav we started off for our hotel in Pisa.  No issues driving other than the SatNav beeping at me a lot at first.  It took me a little bit to figure out that I was speeding which it didn't like.  I didn't like it either after I figured out that the many policemanish signs on the road were actually speed camera warnings.  I'm not sure how many speed cameras I blew by but it was certainly more than a couple.  I guess I will just have to wait and watch the mail for a surprise, right Sarah and Dave?  So after slowing down (90 km/56 mi per hour on four lane highways Italy? Really?) we arrived in Pisa and followed the SatNav to a wrong way one way street in a piazza that was two minutes from the hotel.  I tried driving around the back side but that was blocked off as well.  I did however find myself driving on a pedestrian street in downtown Pisa which instantly recalled Sarah and Dave's story of driving on a pedestrian street on their trip to Pisa.  Not well labelled obviously, it was more confusing as some delivery vehicles were parked on the pedestrian street.  I drove about 50 feet down the walking road when I cop stopped us and told us to turn around then he drove off as though it wasn't a big deal.  So as I back up to the vehicle road we see the camera overhead.  Yup, that'll probably be another ticket in the mail.  Hopefully ours will be cheaper than Dave's.  I did have to laugh to myself as I had stored Dave's story in my memory banks so I would be aware of pedestrian streets but I still drove on one.  Hard to describe Pisa other than don't drive there.  So we are still driving around the hotel and not able to get to it when Lori suggests I pull over and she'll walk to find it.  We are still two minutes away so I park and her and Karl get out and disappear down a street.  Kalle had nodded off so we sat there for not long enough when I started getting nervous so I decided to try one more time to find the hotel.  We agreed that if I wasn't parked here when they returned we'd meet at the original piazza with the one way street.  So my impatience takes over and I leave to try one more time to find a way to the hotel.  I did find a different way in but this time the street is blocked by a crane performing a lift on the street so that was shut down for a while.  I tried driving around it and coming at the area from the other side but it kept bringing me back to this road so I found a parking space, woke up Kal and we started walking to the hotel.  We find the hotel but find out that the crane blocked street is the only access to the hotel so we were stuck until it moved.  To make it worse I asked if Lori had checked in yet and he said nobody had checked into our room yet.  Now I am getting more nervous and mentally kicking myself for us splitting up in a foreign country.  Time to execute Plan B since I ditched Plan A.  Kalle and I leave the hotel and walk to the square and find them sitting on a step waiting for us.  Turns out they found the hotel right away, talked to the reception person ( we found out later the reception person changed between Lori finding the hotel and me finding it; sure would have been nice for the fellow to tell me he'd only been there five-ten minutes but I guess I didn't ask either) and walked back to find us gone.  They then walked to the square and waited for us.  On the positive side they soaked up some vitamin D for twenty minutes, right?  Not the way she saw it but I was glad to see them none the less.  

It's lunch time so we decided to grab a bite to eat before looking for the Leaning Tower.  We find a street full of shops and select a place with pictures of their lunch dishes on a sandwich board by the door.  We walk in, order and watch the waitress walk over to the freezer and take out our lunches.  Seriously?  We found the place that serves frozen food.  Lori and I were in disbelief.  Our meals had been so good until now.  This was easily the worst meal of our trip.  I was so mad I didn't even bother taking a picture.  In case you were wondering, Italy frozen Italian food tastes just like America frozen Italian food.  We did learn later from the hotel that Italian places that cook food from scratch are osterias, pizzerias or ristorantes so we only ate at those places for the rest of the trip.  By now the crane is gone so we move the car to the hotel, check in and head out.

The Hotel Di Stefano in Pisa.  Small but good enough for one night.  The breakfast was okay as well.
We're almost there.  The weather is warm and sunny, a great day to check out the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles).  You can read about it on Wiki here or the official site here.  Our Italian World Heritage Site tour continues with the square which includes the Cathedral (1064 AD), Bapistery (1152 AD), Campanile/Bell Tower (1173 AD), and Camposanto (1277 AD).  We opted not to visit The Sinope Museum (1979) or The Opera del Duomo Museum (1986).
Torre Pendente/La Torre di Pisa (The Leaning Tower of Pisa).  We know a couple of families who visited it and they both recommended seeing it so we added it to our Italy itinerary.  And like David, this was as beautiful as described although the bright sunshine and white marble combination certainly upped the likablity factor.  We opted not to climb it, a combination of semi-laziness and budget.  18 Euros each (above 10 years old is adult price) for a total of 72 Euro or 94 US Dollars.  As I said before, Italy is not cheap.  You can read the tower Wiki link here.
Our first inside stop was Il Camposanto (The Camposanto) which is a walled cemetery said to be built around soil brought back from the Holy Land or Golgotha to be more precise.  It was a little more plain than I was expecting with very little information about it.

Interesting grave marker.

Fresco of The Triumph of Death by Buffalmacco, 1336-41.  Italy has a lot of old frescoes in case you haven't noticed.

Monument with chains.  Not sure of the intended symbolism.

The inside of the cemetery.

Half of one side of the cemetery.  Yes it was quite large.
Next up is the imposing La Cattedrale (The Cathedral).  Unlike in Florence this Duomo is decorated on the outside and inside.  This was also very nice.  It has five naves and a three naved transept with some very impressive artwork.
View down main nave.  We spent a while here as I admired the architecture, artwork, chapels, floor, ceiling, etc.  The Jamaican sprinters looked around then waited for me to finish. 

View across the main nave towards one of the walls.

The incredibly impressive pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, 1302-10.  I especially liked the prowling lions on the bottom.

Main altar.  I am really starting to like touring cathedrals again and we aren't even in Rome yet.

The Urn of St. Ranieri.

The Chapel of St. Ranieri, the patron saint of Pisa.

One of the tombs.

Close up of the amazing pulpit.

One of the wall paintings.

 Il Battistero (The Bapistery) which is the largest bapistery in Italy.  Not as nice as Florence's however.  I looked at the size and outside and thought the inside would be comparable to Florence but not even close.  I keep getting these absolute thoughts in Italy (great carbonara in Venice, great wine in Burano, confusing driving roads in Pisa, beautiful bapisterys) which keep turning out wrong.  I guess I need to stop thinking. 

The pulpit, baptismal font, altar, seating and interior.  Much simpler than I expected.

Requisite stained glass window.

We did climb the bapistery though.  Here's looking down from the balcony.

Looking back at the cathedral from the bapistery balcony.  Tuscan hills and Leaning Tower in the background.

We're done sightseeing so we browsed the merchandise stalls and watched people take the "holding up the Pisa Tower" picture.  I know we can be touristy at times but that is just a tad bit touristy for me.  The family passed as well.

Another medieval city wall.  Lots of infighting in Italy in those times.

The Square of Miracles.  Bapistery on left with Camposanto behind it, Cathedral to the right and Bell Tower behind it.  From this picture it looks like the tower is straight and the cathedral is leaning.

The day was so nice and the sights so spectacular that we sat down for a snack as we admired the square some more.

Dana Johnson Pic - Mmmm, gelato.

After soaking in the square for a while we walked around Pisa.  I selected this as a destination so that it would be a relaxing day but it is more stop than a destination.  The Square of Miracles is definitely worth seeing but there isn't much more to see so after walking for a bit we called it another early day and relaxed until suppertime.

Santa Maria della Spinta (Wiki link) was built in 1230 and earned its name from supposedly housing a thorn from Jesus' Crown of Thorns.  It was originally closer to the river (how?) but moved higher when water kept getting inside it.  We did not tour the inside.

Palazzo dei Cavalieri which dates to 1603.

The view from our hotel window.  Better than Venice and worse than Florence.
When we returned to the hotel we called our England bank to make there weren't any charges to it from the car rental place because the lady had acted kind of strange (we thought) over the SatNav.  To access the internet bank account you need a six digit generated code from a hand sized code machine supplied by the bank which we don't take with us on trips so I tried using the phone service.  Well, that didn't work out so well.  In order to access your account you need to answer a few security questions which I don't have committed to memory.  I answered my security number wrong three times which prompts a transfer to a security specialist - strike one.  While talking to the security specialist the phone line cut out on me - strike two.  So now my phone access has been frozen and I need to stop in at a branch with my passport to free the phone account services.  (I did it when we returned.)  So now I don't know if there were any charges to my account and I can't check on it until we get back to Derby.  I was pretty mad and had a mini temper tantrum but throwing my phone across the bed and into the wall helped.  Didn't help the phone case but I felt a little better.
For supper I opted not to bring my camera which meant we'd probably find a really good place to eat.  We did have to walk for a bit but finally found a ristorante sign pointing down a blind alley.  That place was boarded up but the place across the alley was open and excellent.  We all had pizzas and their house wine was almost as good as in Burano.  It was so good I bought some wine on the way home as I was in the mood for a little more but didn't find any cold so ended up buying ambient off the shelf.  When we passed by the reception desk I asked for a wine glass.  He didn't speak very good English so it took a little back and forth to get him to understand what I needed.  I then asked if he had any ice to help chill the wine and he replied "NO ICE NO ICE!!" excitedly before going on a mini-rant about some American friends who fill all of their glasses with ice no matter what they are drinking.  Instead he took the bottle and chilled it in the hotel freezer for 30 minutes.  It was all kind of funny, especially him getting so excited over ice in wine.  Yeah I know you probably shouldn't use ice on wine but I didn't know that was one of the extra five Commandments (Mel Brooks') Moses dropped.  Worst part was the bottle wine was more expensive and not as good as the ristorante house wine.  I probably should have stayed for another glass but thought the fam was ready to go.  The night ended with a rarity - I found an English speaking TV show.  David Letterman was interviewing Regis Philbin so I watched a couple of minutes of them blabbering on about Regis and why he hasn't retired yet.

Thursday Day 8 - Tuscany.  We actually entered Tuscany on our train ride between Venice and Florence but for ease of breaking up the blog posts I just labelled those days Florence and Pisa.  A few ex-pats loved Tuscany on their Italy trips which is what prompted us to rent a car and drive to Florence to Pisa to San Gimignano to Greve in Chianti to Rome.  The scenery is beautiful in Tuscany even though we had a few clouds on our drives.  I can also see why they make movies set here, such a beautiful backdrop. 

Our plan was to wake up in Pisa and drive a little through Tuscany and stop at San Gimignano which went as planned.  Driving through Tuscany with a murky sky.

Tuscan scenery.  We couldn't get any of the towns on hills pictures that were really spectacular so you'll have to settle for these poor attempts.

A panoramic picture of a random valley.

Just outside San Gimignano.
San Gimignano (Wiki link) is a highly rated tourist destination mainly because fourteen of its seventy-two medieval towers (like Dante's tower house in Florence) are still standing in the World Heritage Site historic town centre. Unfortunately highly rated in this case means cheesy, touristy jam packed areas with vendors hawking everything imaginable.  I was so disappointed.  The town had such potential driving up but once you walk through the streets you feel like you are at a Saturday morning flea market, not a historic medieval town in rural Italy.  Even walking through the city wall and through the corridor of shops was fine.  What wrecked it for me was the main squares packed full of ramshackle stalls and packs of tourists and loud students from tour buses turning the squares into human bumper car derbys.  The building scenery was great but the atmosphere was cheap garage sale.  I was so disgusted we skipped the duomo and history museum.

San Gimignano's towers from afar.

San Gimignano's 12th and 13th C towers from anear.

After finding parking we start off for the promising looking medieval town.  Apparently all medieval towns in Italy still have their town walls intact encircling the town.

Tower towering over the stone arches makes you feel like you stepped back into time.  So far so good.  This also continues our Assassin's Creed stops tour although Karl didn't recognise it at the time.

Looking over the greater town centre.

The junk stalls butted up to the duomo steps.  I think they know when to stop backing up when parking by bumping the van behind them.  After briefly looking around we browsed our way out of town.  We did stop for lunch before leaving town.

Dana Johnson Pic - Tagliatelle in a wild boar and tomato sauce.  Very good meals again except for KJ's pizza which came out a lot crispy for his tastes.  I told him he went to the well one to many times with his pizzas but he didn't get it. 
After lunch we checked out a few more shops and picked out a few samples from a chocolate and fudge shop.  I tried the rice and white chocolate pieces but realised they weren't just rice and white chocolate after my second bite.  So we dig out the Benadryl when we get to the car and I start a Benadryl pill drip for the rest of the day.  I caught it quick enough that it wasn't a bad reaction and was alert the rest of the day, I just felt a bit "fuzzy" in the head.  This was also my last dessert that wasn't tiramisu or milk gelato.  At least my "play it safe" desserts tasted great. 

Neat little castle-like villa shrouded by trees.

Rental Beemer outside our hotel.  We selected this low cost hotel due to its location and cost since we were only here for one night.  It was called Casprini Da Omero in Greve in Chianti but should have been called Il Dumpioli II.  We pulled up and Lori looked at me and said "I'm not sure what to think" and I felt the same way.  We've been in some dumpy looking places on the outside but fixed up inside and also been in some dumps.  This fell into the dumpy all over category.

Dining room/living room/bed room room.  When we walked into reception to check-in the solitaire distracted person  was doing his best to fill the whole hotel with second hand cigarette smoke and was less than happy to see us.  He barely moved when he gave us the room keys and said that he didn't know if the place had been cleaned yet.  Then he went back to his enthralling game and ignored us as we stood in front of him.  So we bee lined it out of the smoke choked lobby. 

Bed room.  The rooms didn't look bad and weren't smokey so we were okay with it.  Low expectations for the price you know. 
Our last stop for the day was thanks to Sarah and Dave, our ex-ex-pat friends who are back in Indy now (hi guys and adorable little Anna).  When they toured Italy Dave found a charming winery which they stopped at and Sarah wrote about it on her blog (thanks for finding it Dave and writing about it Sarah) so when I showed it Lori she instantly wanted to see it as well.  The winery is Castello Di Verrazzano (website link) which is in the heart of Tuscany and dates to 1150 AD.  We've done other winery tours and enjoyed them but this was easily the oldest winery we've ever been at.  The tour was great, highly recommended for anyone in the area.  The tour guide was great also, he encouraged us to take pictures and write/post about the place.  He said they take all the free publicity they can get which I found to be refreshing after our Venice experience.

The view from the veranda.  We are waiting for our tour to start.  I think there were about 18-20 people in the tour which was mostly families with a couple of couples.  I think more than half of the tour was from the US which Lori and I found to be funny.  About ten minutes before the tour started it was all Americans and then a few showed up late then a few others pulled up as the tour started so they just joined in.  Very informal tour which was relaxing.

The New York family on the tour had heard of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge which was named after the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano.  James certainly needed a better PR man as he was the first European since the Vikings to explore the North American coast from Newfoundland to the Carolinas but that fact is not well known.  Lori and I hadn't heard of him which doesn't mean he wasn't famous but I would have thought he would have been more well known for what he's done.  The Europeans like to show their glory you know.  He probably should have hired Colombus' PR man, he probably would have been credited with discovering the South Pole then.  In a travelling coincidence Amerigo Vespucci (who America was named after) was from Florence.  A bit tongue in cheek above but for the record Verrazzano explored North America, Columbus explored the Caribbean and Central America, and Vespucci explored South America.

Impressive explorer and history.  The guide didn't tell us what Etruscan artifacts were found here but the Etruscan time period is between the Greeks and Romans which places them a few centuries BC.  Verrazzano met a grisly end as he cannibalised by the Carib in the Caribbean in case you were curious. 

Gardens on the property.

Varied shrubbery (am I only one who thinks of Monty Python when I hear shrubbery?) on the hill.

 Competing winery on the next hill. Our tour guide told us to take the winery tour at that place and while there takes pictures of Verrazzano and only post the Verrazzano pictures. He was joking. Overall he was a funny and engaging tour guide, we really enjoyed him.

Some seven or eight foot tall casks on the underground portion of the tour.

Wine racks.  They also made their own balsamic vinegar which wasted great on the local cheeses during the wine tasting at the end.  The tour also included an explanation on their reds and how they are made differently which affects the taste.  Chianti wine is all made in this Chianti region of Tuscany but I didn't particularly enjoy it.
Tasting at the end.  It was all reds which was a bummer as the whites would have been better IMO.
Castello di Verrazzano as we left.

Dana Johnson Pic - Purple risotto with bacon that Lori and I both tried.  The purple is from grape mash.  I've had black risotto from squid ink before but not purple.  It was very good.  Kalle's steak medallions were excellent and Karl selected a pasta dish that was tasty.  We tried the ristorante by the hotel but the room sized cigarette cloud drove us out as soon as we stepped in.  Smoking is alive and well in Italy.

Dana Johnson Pic - A creamier homogeneous Tiramisu that was still awesome.
Back to the Il Dumpioli II for the night and we find out we hadn't paid for heat.  The electronic thermostat didn't affect the room temperature no matter where we set it and the radiator knobs were strictly decoration.  I went to reception a few times but they didn't tend the desk after 6 PM.  So we ended up sleeping in our clothes to stay warm.  Kind of like camping without the fire.  When we checked out the next morning there still wasn't anyone at the desk so we couldn't complain about the room heat or ask what "breakfast included" meant since nothing was provided or left for us.  So we just left the room keys on the desk and headed off for Rome.  We rarely provide feedback on places we stay at but did provide feedback on our experiences at Venice and Tuscany.  We did check the reviews and other homework on these places but our experiences were much worst than anything posted or rated. 
Next up - Rome.  We're halfway done with the vacation and enjoying the amazing sights and relaxed pace with the big two coming up, Rome and Barcalona.  Thanks for sharing our travels with us so far and we'll see y'all in a few days. 

Thanks for listening,


  1. Wow, sounds like quite an experience driving in Pisa! Not something I'd attempt myself; you are owed some proper respects.

    1. Probably one of the worst driving towns I've been in so far. Very confusing trying to follow the GPS and one way streets. The one way streets that runs into pedestrian streets were not helpful either.