Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Written 11th March

Its snowing!  A phrase I expected to need from my phrase book even less in Italy in March than in Spain in December...

After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and sticky bun - best cappuccino I have ever had! - in a proper cafe, converted from a traditional drugstore, complete with varnished wooden counters, shiny brass fittings and boiled sweets in jars, which was full of gossiping locals and fortunately just on the edge of a puddle of unsecured wifi, we looked out of the window to see snowflakes swirling picturesquely past the window.  No clifftop walk today then :(

A visit to the tourist office confirmed a dismal outlook for the next few days, as well as the fact that it was breath-robbingly cold outside, but a look at her map confirmed that we could head south and try again en route back up to Milan in a week or so without going too far out of our way.

So we packed ourselves up and headed out.

We had been advised that Pisa would only be a half day visit: see tower, photo, duomo, done.  In the freezing event, we managed 1h10m before the cold drove us on :)

Fortunately, if approached from the north by way of the SS1, you see the top of the tower and the duomo pretty much from the moment you pass the town boundary sign so you have a landmark to head for (still haven't changed satnav maps yet so thingamy GPS no help!).  Abandoning the usual quest for free parking as it was just so damn cold, we parked as close as we could and set off through the sleet.

Even in the inclement weather, the first view of the church, with the tower peeping drunkenly round the corner is as comical as it is described

but not nearly as funny as the scores of people contorting themselves into odd positions for that iconic photo without which no visit to Pisa is complete. 

Of course if you can't beat 'em, join 'em... :)

We headed to the ticket office where we found that a 15min visit to climb up the tower was a budget breaking €15.  Each!  Wouldn't have been justifiable even on a glorious day, but whilst in the ticket office, we were able to hang over a railing and watch a fascinating series of short films in English about the history and restoration of the tower.

Begun in 1173, to complete the trio of buildings in the Campo dei Miracoli, the tower was meant to be a symbol of Pisa's power.  It was a striking design of exterior marble columns and arches, with an internal spiral staircase built into the walls and a hollow core, planned to be 8 storeys high.   Unfortunately, 12 years after its commencement and just 3 storeys up, it suddenly started to lean.  In ancient times, Pisa had actually been a sea port and the sandy silt subsoil was just not capable of supporting the structure.  Various things were tried to support it - which had the effect of causing it to lean dramatically the other way - and they decided eventually to continue with construction until it was finally completed in 1350, although in an attempt to correct its appearance, the belltower is at a visibly different angle to the rest of it.  And still it continued to lean...

Since the early 1900's, committee after successive committee have been appointed to try and solve the problem.  One set, fairly early on, had the bright idea of excavating round the sunken base - not sure what they were trying to achieve - which then filled up with water and caused it to sink further d'oh!

More recent efforts included concrete counterbalances, sunken steel rings with suspended weights, steel ropes and pulleys and finally using big archimedes screw like drills to pull earth out from underneath the high side which has caused it to settle back to a position where the top is now a mere 4m overhang from straight - back to where it was in early 1800's...  Today they have a fancy GIS monitoring system which takes 250 individual readings every 5 mins and are in the process of restoring the stonework hence the gantries. 

Fascinating stuff.

Too cold to hang about so we continued on to florence, with big signs all along the motorway warning of snow at our destination. :(

The rush hour traffic was horrible, the weather worse and everywhere made more complicated by people zigzagging around in between cars on their vespas - the girls with helmets and handbags perfectly coordinated to their bikes and all with that effortless style which in reality takes hours of effort to achieve and admits to no apparent affect of the cold... grrr

We stopped for a drink and defrost in the first bar we saw with a parking space outside it, to let the horn-blaring madness subside, then found the aire de service in our french book.   For italy, it seems they actually got the information from an italian camping-car association rather than the world's shortest web search so it is actually useful! Unlike spain...  It was €1.50 flat rate during the day but charged per hour over night so we parked in an out of hours street bay overnight and dragged ourselves out of bed in the morning in time to move it before 8am when charging started - bit of a shock to the system!

After a brief look at the town map in a guidebook, which we then left behind as it was too heavy to carry, we stood at the bus stop and got on the first bus which came past in the hope that we would recognise something which might prompt us to get off - I mean how wrong could this go as a plan.... 

Actually it worked out ok, once we found a way to see past the chattering  crowd of small girls loaded onto the bus by their teacher.  I have never seen so much eyelevel lurid pink whilst sat on a bus!

We disembarked oppposite the Uffezi, at the Ponte Vecchio, , the oldest surviving bridge across the Arno and the only one to escape bombing in WWII.

It was built in 1345 and is lined with shops hanging precariously off both sides, originally the domain of the butchers and tanners who used the river to dispose of their waste.  By this time, Florence was under the rule of the Medici's who had palaces on both sides of the river. 

They initially built an enclosed corridor above the shops so that they could cross the bridge without mixing with hoi polloi and then subsequently evicted the original shop owners due to the stink, and replaced by the much more refined and socially acceptable jewellers and goldsmiths who are still there today.

We found the tourist office, maps, list of opening hours and prices of things and then somewhere with warm with wifi to escape the weather and regroup.  Unfortunately it was an irish bar serving american coffee - not the dream at all :(  but it was warm :)

It turns out that there is a bewildering  array of available museums, churches, galleries and other places where 'art' is on display to the masses.  All with different claims to fame and reasons you must visit and completely random opening days, hours and prices.  As an indication, Florence is in our 1001 places book with the entry subdivided into 10 unmissable things and a further 20 things you should try and see.  The Uffuzi, Duomo and Academia all have further, completely separate entries all to themselves....  Just too much.

If you are serious about 'art', a trip to Florence is not to be undertaken lightly.  It must  be planned with all the precision of a full scale military assult, including your plan of attack and with all your routes, entry and exit points, strategic withdrawal positions (coffee!) and primary and secondary targets identified, categorised and researched.  You can't just rock into town on a whim with not much of a clue - except that there is a church, a statue and some paintings you are supposed to see in some museum... :)  - and I couldn't get all the way through any of the guide book entries in advance without my head spinning...

To be completely honest, it was with some trepidation that I contemplated  Florence a place whose name is so well known and with all the images it conjures up.  We are not really 'art people', fine or otherwise - you know my views on contemporary art well enough by now! - and I find a lot of oil paintings, still lifes and portraits just too heavy, dark and constrained, and very, very dull after a while.  But then, when other people go into raving transports of delight around me, I worry that I am missing something (which I obviously am unless all these people are just making it up!) and feel inadequate and uneducated.  Will has since come up with an placatory analogy - involving a comparison of the look and functionality of windows 98 and windows vista (obviously) - about the effect of mere surface perception versus actual indepth knowledge on your awareness and therefore appreciation and understanding of these things and has therefore reassured me that without any education in these things I shouldn't expect to be able to 'get' what other more learned people do, which makes me feel better but no more knowledgeable or adequate...

We also don't want to spend lots of time and money doing things just because we feel we should, rather than through any actual desire to do them - which might mean that we would not be able to do things we really want to do later on - but equally we don't want to leave somewhere and then have wails of "I can't believe you went there and didn't do that" following us across the ether.  Its so hard being us! ;)

Anyway, having spun one coffee out  as long as we possibly could, and with the sun shining, intermittently, we headed on out.

We soon found the church of Santa Croce, with its surprising white marble façade on its otherwise, plain brick exterior

and then on, past the queues to the Uffizi, to the Piazza della Signoria, with the imposing Palazzo Vechio,

the famous statue of David (a copy, the original is in the Academia)

and the others of Perseus beheading Medusa, and the rape of the sabine women.

Our view of David was sadly a bit spoilt by earlier reading of the rough guide which went to great lengths to explain how people are often disappointed by their first sight of the actual David as in the museum you are too close to it so it is all to obvious that the proportions are wrong, his hands and feet too big, his legs are too short and apparently he is wall eyed.  The rough guide, we are finding, can be a bit eeyorish about some things...  This wrongness is however not incompetence on behalf of Michelangelo but apparently a masterpiece of perspective trickery, designed to be seen from afar in the square where it is all perfectly right.  Although, once you know his feet are too big, you can't stop noticing it - there I've gone and spoilt it for you too...

The sudden rounding of the corner into the Piazza del Duomo was a stop-in-your-tracks shock. 

Having not looked much at the guide book, I had absolutely no pre idea of what to expect but it certainly wasn't a church in wine green and claret stripey pyjamas - sorry, that was the first thing that popped into my head after 'wow', doesn't stop it being impressive!

As with Pisa, the Cathedral, Tower and Baptistry are three separate buildings - don't know why - with the Baptistry being by far the oldest and alledgedly built on the remains of a Roman Temple to Mars.


We went into the Duomo where the marble floor and frescoed dome are magnificent

but decided against the guided tour around the top of the dome and out on to the roof on such a cold, overcast day.  Pretty impressive though nonetheless! 

Back out to the baptistry with its bronze doors depicting scenes from the Old Testament. 

Next to the still bustling market

and then to the other tourist office where we got the list of descriptions of things to go with our map and list of opening hours - not sure why we didn't get this first time, its kinda important! - so we could actually sit over a coffee and panini and see what there was to see and do.

Unfortunately this was a bit late as we discovered that most of the things we might have wanted to do, were closed - either for lunch, the afternoon, the day or indeed the rest of the week! -  but we spotted a History of Science museum which promised 1500 scientific instruments from the middle ages onward, including Gallileo's actual telescopes, which sounded interesting.  

But it was sadly not to be as when we got there, a sign outside said that the first and second floor were closed for refurbishment.  When we asked what would be missing, the girl listed 'the instruments, telescopes, microscopes and maps and the things relating to medicine, astronomy, mechanics, pneumatics'.  hmmm  'Basically everything' she added with somewhat weary honesty.  We could still see Gallileo's telescopes though!  But there was no reduced entrance fee to compensate for the much reduced museum so we didn't - which was a real shame.  Disappointed by the failure of our quest for 'art in the form of science' something we both find more accessible than actual art, we headed on towards the Academia - more to see it than any plans to go in, we figured we'd seen david as the artist intended so no need to see the original in the wrong setting!  - and happened upon a da Vinci museum which promised models of all his inventions you could play with.  Well that sounded good, even if it was typical of our tourist experience in Florence so far in that staff don't actually like being interrupt to talk to you, they would much rather continue with their important personal phone call or book or leaflet they are reading - this is one hadn't even unlocked the door!

The things themselves were fascinating. It is very easy to take for granted that you can change rotary motion in one direction to rotary motion in another by simple use of intermeshing cogs or simple things like worm gears and ratcheted wheels and forget that there was a time when these were previously uncontemplated scribbles in the sketchbook of a genius.  Sadly, the idea far outstripped the execution and engineering ability of the people who made the models as some faithfully copied the sketches but missed out vital components so therefore didn't work and most were broken through inability to withstand children.  But it was interesting nonetheless, especially life size models of some of his more outlandish things, like the 4-wheel multidirectional tank and the horse drawn, sabre whirling killing machine.

We wandered on past mountains of icecream, attesting to Florence's presumably usually more clement weather,

and David tat shops (presumably no one ever goes in here and asks for a small david... ;) ),

the duomo dome umbrellas being a more tasteful touch

surprised at every turn by the variety of the architecture - round a corner and there is always something unexpected and random! -

all the while surrounded by the drawl or twang of americans, before back to the van clutching special tuscan spaghetti - much thicker than normal spaghetti - for a first ever attempt at carbonara, my all time favourite pasta dish.  A slight sauce to pasta ratio issus - but in the right direction! - yummy.

Bill had implored us that whilst in Florence we should get up early one morning and go see the market waking up.  So, having parked the van in a small carpark surrounded by other motorhomes with no parking meter, we dutifully set our alarm for some hitherto unknown an ungodly hour with every intention of getting up.  But we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads (although some warmth at this point would have been appreciated!) and when we poked our noses out of the duvet at the appointed hour, they nearly got frostbite (or so it felt), so we went back into hibernation until it was a bit warmer.. about 3 hours later - sorry Bill, one for another time!

When we did finally emerge, we also discovered that there is an invisible exclusion ring around florence, through which motorhomes should not cross (and which we had been inside the previous night), and that we were actually in a residents only watershed carpark on the very edge of it, where motorhoming florentines are forced to stable their beasts.  We have also seen at least two active tow trucks whilst in town so have been lucky!

Back to the carpark then, and back on the bus as I was determined to actually see some art, even if it wasn't the famous stuff.

Our tour took us round every open, free church or cloister we could find, including

two fresco'd last suppers (one of which, by Andrea del Castagno is apparently the first renaissance last supper painted in Florence),

a monochrome (it was in grey but had a red skylight the camera just couldn't cope with!) fresco'd cloister depicting the life of St John the Baptist (Florence's patron saint by Andrea del Sarto,

the mannerist masterpiece Pontorm's Deposition with accompanying fresco of the annunciation

Michelangelo's wooden crucifix (first naked jesus we have seen and surprisingly beautiful in its stark simplicity), and many, many, many paintings of Madonna and child.  We managed on a couple of occasions to be standing near people who knew things (or thought they knew things) so came away from some of them having learnt something (or at least thinking we had learnt something ;) ).  Just goes to show we will be better off coming back with someone who does know something! 

We also learnt, from standing behind an art trip from ireland, all about how fresco is done - a skim layer of wet plaster, painted on whilst still damp and then allowed to dry which fixes the colours - and the methods by which the original design was first marked out on the wall, firstly sinopia, using reddish charcoal stuff just drawn on then plasterered over in small patches, later spolvero, laying a peper drwing on to the wall, punching holes along the lines and then dusting with charchoal for a join-the-dots result on the plaster below and most modernly cartone, laying the paper on the wet plaster and scoring the along the outlines with a stylo to make impressions in the plaster.  We also saw some of the sinopia which have been uncovered during the process of removing the actual fresco for restoration.  and I have since found out that the Renaissance style was marked by an increasing quest for realism in art whereas Mannerism, which followed, was characterised by brightly coloured, fanciful and contorted imagery.  So there you go

But eventually my fairly low art appreciation threshold kicked in (only so many madonna and child's you can appreciate in one day although the subject matter was rather dictated by our choice of free viewing venues so we didn't help ourselves in this!) so, back to the van by way off coffee (proper tourists today, cappuccino at 4:30pm - shocking!) and the largest slice of cake with interweb in a proper italian cafe, then onwards.

Our antidote to a surfeit of 'art' is a quest for perched villages with mazes of typical streets - haven't had our quota of them for severe days! - and these will be tuscan ones, bound to be different...

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