Before we got Sky TV many many years ago we used to watch the Open University in bed on Sunday mornings and for several years we watched the same programmes, probably the history of art course which referred to the towns of Tuscany and so for the first time we are getting a chance to visit the places discussed. Unfortunately it was so long ago we cannot remember anything we learned from those programmes but the desire to visit has remained on our wish list ever since. Of course Open University courses are now on line and so don't appear on BBC anymore.
We were able to get the bus from near our camp site into Pisa, it took about 20 minutes and cost €6 return for each of us. Rather conveniently the bus dropped us off in the centre of old Pisa and it was a short step into what is called the Field of Miracles. This sounds to me like a good name for a film but in essence this is the area of the city which houses the cathedral, the baptistery, monumental cemetery and the campanile or bell tower, better known of course as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Leaning Tower has always seemed a bit of a cliché to us, the sort of tourist destination whose image ends up on tea towels, mugs or those glass snowstorm thingies but is really a bit dull. Therefore we were surprised to find just how impressive these buildings were, both inside and out. But you can still get the leaning tower tea towels, mugs, glass snowstorm thingies and lots of other tut, all on sale here.
We bought €10 ‘season tickets’ to get into the various things (except the Leaning Tower which we reckoned was prettier from the outside than the inside) and wandered round the Baptistry (wonderful acoustics), the Cathedral (excellent façade, almost Cordoba Mesquite-style arches, good ceiling and fine bronze door), the monumental graveyard (some famous frescoes) and a couple of museums. Good value. For lunch we had pizza and beer in a restaurant just outside the main piazza. All told, an excellent day, and the weather was warm and sunny.
Pisa is quite a large town and on our second visit we wandered around admiring the buildings and the churches. We did try to hunt down a museum referred to in the book but never managed to find it. Either they moved it (unlikely) or the book was wrong, which is more likely as we found a few errors in there.
One interesting aspect to our bus trips into Pisa was that we passed the red light area. Unlike in the UK, the prostitutes here seem to hang out in the countryside rather than in town and either they are sitting scantily clad on a plastic chair or in one case standing around in high heels, knickers and nowt else.
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We spent yesterday in Siena, camping at an Aire which was a glorified carpark but was bloody expensive at €20. Fortunately Siena made up for it – wonderful buildings in brown brick (burnt Siena) and the Campo (where they run the Palio) was excellent. We did an afternoon of strolling (8 miles according to Sheila’s phone) and went into the Cathedral, Baptistry and Hospital. The latter was amazing because there were so many levels down below – it went on for miles and there were some eerie places devoted to dodgy saints. The Cathedral was good, but we have seen so many recently that it is proving difficult to keep up.
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The Liberation Day public holiday caused a bit of a problem because it messed up the public transport but we managed to get the right bus to Lucca and walked the massive and complete city walls and saw the city sights (the Cathedral, lots of Piazzas, some excellent old buildings, the Torre Guinigi which we climbed, and the Flower Market in the excellent Anfiteatro where we bought a Basil plant). The interesting thing about the Anfiteatro is that it isn’t there anymore but the houses that were built up against its walls are still there so what is left is a large elliptical space.
Liberation Day (celebrating the end of WW2) is taken very seriously here: there were lots of different events like open-air concerts – we heard a couple of rock events practicing in Lucca. Made our Armistice Day look very tame.
We were knackered by the end of the day – Sheila’s phone says we did 10.7 miles – so we had a take-away pizza for dinner from the camp pizzeria. A bit under-done compared with the excellent crispy pizzas we have had elsewhere.
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We caught the bus from our campsite (Mugello Verde see florencecamping.com ) but this only took us a couple of miles into San Piero a Sieve where we had to wait for the Florence bus. By the time it arrived there was a fair crowd waiting and in the ensuing scramble (there is nothing in the way of a disciplined queue or the idea of first-come-first-served) we missed out. Sheila eventually got a seat when a boy decided the sit on his mother’s lap but Gilroy had to stand for the whole of the almost one-hour trip along winding roads.
In Florence we first headed for the Cathedral. The interior is huge but very plain. Apparently the Florentines wanted something bigger than the cathedrals in Pisa or Siena, and they certainly got it, but its internal plainness rather lets it down for us.
The big thing about the Cathedral is the huge Dome, which featured in one of those Open University programmes because when it was built nobody was sure it could be done, or would stay up if it was done. We queued and paid to walk up the 480-odd steps (fortunately there were a few hold-ups which allowed us to recover our breath and strength) to the Gallery – which provided excellent views of the bloodthirsty frescos on the dome ceiling – and the roof of the dome which provided wonderful views over the whole of Florence. Having descended, we then went into the basement where there were remains of an old (fourth century?) Roman church and the burial place of Brunelleschi who designed the dome.
We walked through the ‘Leather’ market but got caught up in a stampede when the illegal hawkers were chased by what we assume was the undercover fuzz – we had to cower in shop doorway as the mob ran past. One of the hawkers fell over and dropped a few things which he left behind as he fled and once he had gone the regular stall holders came by and Sheila saw them stamping on the items that had fallen, one looked like a faux expensive watch.
On the first day we ended up in Santa Croce which is a very large church which had the burial places of Galileo and Michaelangelo, plus some shagged-out frescos by Giotto. Apparently he applied the paint to dry – rather than wet – plaster and it flaked off. You would have thought that he knew the right method.
On the second day we walked across the river to the massive Roman Gate. Some excellent buildings and squares on the way and you get a fine view of the Ponte Vecchio. Huge queues for the Uffizi and for the Pitti Palace (at first we thought it was a crowd watching some street theatre) so that was another cultural highlight missed. There were large parties of elderly American folk that we guessed may have been on trips out from cruise ships, you needed to be careful not to get caught up with these as you could end your days in a North Carolina gated community for seniors.
Had an excellent lunch near the Pitti Palace – Potato Ravioli with Funghi sauce for Gilroy and Seafood Spaghetti for Sheila. Very tasty, washed down with a couple of beers and about €25.
We went into Florence again on Saturday and – surprisingly – there were few people waiting for the bus and fewer people in town. Given the fine weather we decided not to go inside anywhere (which also saved us from queuing) but to walk through the Boboli Gardens which we had seen on Friday. Very green and restful after the noise and crowds of the city. There were some nasty hills in there but we were rewarded with some excellent views over the city.
We had lunch at the market: a plate of mixed cold meat and another of cheese, plus some bread and a couple of beers for €26. We didn’t recognise one of the meats but this morning Gilroy read about finocchiona – ‘a large, soft cold cut usually prepared using both lean and fatty meat coming from the stomach lining of the pig which is ground fine, salted and seasoned with fennel seeds, pepper, garlic and red wine’ – and this sounds like it.
It was the hottest day so far – it must have been well into the twenties – and Gilroy had a problem with blisters caused by his Tiva’s rubbing. Tried to fix it with plasters but they were not sufficiently sticky and we had to stop every few hundred yards. Odd that the shoes should start to rub when they have been OK for years, as you can imagine he bore his pain in a manly fashion!
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We stayed Camping Ca’Savio on the spit which is the Adriatic side of the Venice lagoon. See casavio.it This is a massive site – 1,500 pitches of which 800 are for tourers – amongst nicely shading trees and with the beach about 100m away. Unusually, there are plenty of Brits here – at least half a dozen (which constitutes a crowd by recent standards). One of the Brits was at Keswick in the 70’s and lived with her Aunt in Barnham Broom! Small world. There is a restaurant, bar, a large shop with fresh bread, this shop also sold wine by the litre, you buy a bottle for a euro and then it is filled for €1.95.
We bought combined bus and boat tickets from Reception (€16 each) and made our first trip into Venice . It is a 40-minute trip from Punta Sabbioni and the boat drops you off near San Pieta and we spent the day walking around. The Basilica of San Marco was wonderful – indeed the whole square was fairly spectacular – but it was packed to the eyeballs. We then walked north along the front to the Arsenale (where they used to make boats in the medieval period, now a naval establishment), across to the other side near the Ospidale and then back through narrow alleys, lovely squares and across neat little bridges.
There is an amazing number of boats – of all shapes and sizes – operating in the lagoon and along the canals. Our boat was a medium-sized ferry carrying a few hundred people, but there were also car/truck ferries, small ferries (vaporettos) for about 100 people, water taxis for the rich, gondolas (complete with singing gondoliers) for the foolish (and rich, it is 40 euros each), police boats, ambulances, post boats and delivery boats.
We had been warned about prices in Venice so we took a packed lunch and our own water and ate it while seated alongside a canal. There are boards in the Piazza san Marco forbidding alfresco eating (and signs in front of shops forbid pik-niks). Near the Arsenale we stopped for a couple of beers which cost us €12. In practice, it wasn’t the beer we needed, but the bogs. There is at least one public toilet in Venice – though you still have to pay €1 to use it - but I am not sure if there is a second. The most expensive thing of all though would be a cup of coffee in one of the cafes in St Marks Square which also has an small orchestra . The coffee was about €5.50 and then there was a payment for the music of €5.70 so something close to ten quid for a cup of coffee. To be fair, you only paid for the music once but perhaps not surprisingly these cafes were very empty.
On our second trip into we took a vaporetto along the Grand Canal to Roma and then walked back along the canals and narrow streets. Much less crowded, and the gentle walk provided a continuous supply of picturesque sights. The Grand Canal was excellent – not only for the wonderful buildings (including the Rialto Bridge) – but also for the way in which the boat traffic managed to keep out of each other’s way. This traffic also includes bin-men, DHL boats, ambulances and postmen
One question which does arise – not just for Venice but for the whole of Italy so far – is whether the kids ever go to school or just spend their days on supervised visits to national monuments. Wherever we have gone – Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Florence, Venice – there have been a million schoolkids being marched around or lectured at. And – perhaps more surprising – they are just as badly dressed and ugly as kids at home. A comforting thought.
A notable feature of Italian campsites is the number of ‘Turkish’ toilets, i.e. holes in the ground which require a decent sense of balance, flexible knees, and remembering to take your wallet out of your back pocket. Sheila remembers these from her trip here 40 years ago. Why do they still have such things? Nobody uses them except as pissoirs, and their distance from the point where the piss starts makes them even more prone to collateral splashing than ordinary crappers, and Sheila is always complaining that men are inaccurate even with those. And we note that Turkish campers are fairly infrequent.
From Venice we moved on to Croatia
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Sheila last visited Lake Garda - by train - in 1967 when she and Pamela Scott did their local travel by hitch-hiking - how the world has changed. It has changed enormously but she recognised the bank where she changed her shillings and pence into lire - again - how the world has changed.
The San Francesco site ( www.campingsanfrancesco.com )was large and enormously crowded because there was some sort of national holiday in Italy and the locals came en masse with their aged relatives and many small children. Isn't there meant to be some sort of baby crisis in Italy? No sign of it here, we saw one woman with four children under five (looking very harrassed).
This location was a major change from our last site at Lake Bohinj in Slovenia where there were only about another dozen campers and the noisiest things were the waterfall and the birds.
The weather at Lake Garda was excellent - sunny and well into the 30s. Our tans are even better.
We went around Sirmeone which was excellent - a very nice castle (which we did not explore) and a ruined Roman villa which we did explore.
We also visited Desenzano which was much nicer than the guide book had suggested - nothing very historical but a very attractive small resort town with lots of exclusive designer shops. We went into one of them and bought some very pretty things.
The picture above is of the castle at Sirmeone
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