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Pisa and Florence, Italy

Travelling alone Part 2 - The not-so-dissapointing city of Pisa and the sculpture capital of the world: Florence.

sunny 26 °C
View Britain and Europe 2007 on Jaana M's travel map.

On Monday, October 1, I woke up in Vernazza, packed my things together and said goodbye to my roomy apartment and beautiful fishing village. I took a train to La Spezia and then got on a connection to Pisa. On the train a guy, Joseph, asked me if I was American and after I proudly clarified that I was actually Canadian we began talking, realized that we were both headed to Pisa for a few hours and decided to explore it together. At first Pisa seemed like a very little and slightly run-down town, which fit perfectly to all of the disappointing stories we had heard about Pisa. We were doubting our choice of coming to Pisa as we entered the city centre and walked under the old city wall, but all doubtful thoughts disappeared as soon as we got to the other side of the wall. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was there, leaning eternally, and as my guide book had forecasted a ‘mire of gawping, Gelato slurping tourists’ surrounded it, but much to our surprise the tower was not alone: three other magnificent buildings perched beside the tower. We decided to skip the über-expensive tower climb and only visit the other three buildings. They turned out to be well worth it, despite their plain names: the ancient ‘Cemetery’ had hundreds of carved stone crypts and marble tombs, the ‘Baptistery’ boasted some excellent stained glass windows and flawless acoustics and the ‘Cathedral’ was one of the fanciest and most impressive that I have ever seen. Surprised and satisfied we made our way towards the train station and in search of some lunch. We found a student pub recommended by my guide book and enjoyed a spectacular lunch. I had saffron flavoured Risotto with zucchini, squid and baby octopus for my first course, a tomato, squid and baby octopus Bruschetta for my second course and a salad with corn, tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage for my third course. All of that, plus a complementary 1/2L of white wine per guest was only 10EUR! I didn’t even have to pay that much though, because Joseph paid for my lunch. It was a great beginning to a super day.

At the train station we said goodbye and parted ways; he went to go wait for his train to Siena and I went to the track where the train to Florence was due in twenty minutes. Quite curiously the train that was supposed to have left for Florence five minutes ago was still standing there, so I decided to get on. I opened the door and hoisted one foot onto the first step, but much to my horror, the train started to move before I could get my second foot off the ground! I realized that it was going to leave whether I was in or not, so as quickly as I could, I pulled myself up the step and threw myself into the train. Lying on the floor and not quite believing that I had just jumped onto a moving train, I thanked the fact that I had packed light and that half my baggage wasn’t left on the platform. The rest of the trip was quite uneventful and I arrived in Florence at 3:15pm. I found my hostel with no problems, but the door was locked and no one was answering the doorbell. I called the number I had, but that didn’t work at all until I found out Florence’s area code from a local, and then the old guy that answered didn’t understand that I was locked out and kept hanging up on me. In frustration I managed to drop my cell phone and different pieces flew everywhere, but luckily it still worked once I put it all back together. Near tears, I tried one last time and pleaded for him to just come to the hostel, which he finally agreed to do. Finally I was set up in my hostel, freed of my backpack and ready to spend the afternoon exploring Florence.

The first place I headed for was the Duomo, the most famous cathedral in Florence, which boasted the longest nave in the world. On the outside it was quite impressive, with intensely decorated walls, numerous carvings and a huge domed clay roof. On the inside however, it was quite plain and despite the cavernous nave I found it pretty boring. The Baptistery next door was much more pleasing, both on the outside and the inside. The old entrance, the Paradise Gates, consisted of two tall iron doors decorated with eight golden plates and every plate had an impressively intricate depiction of Genesis on it. Inside the Baptistery a gold mosaic stretched across the domed roof and watched over the vast marble floor. The mosaic had a large depiction of Jesus and smaller depictions of the apostles, hell, heaven and other religious items. I sat in a pew and with the help of the info booklet, slowly deciphered what each section of the mosaic represented. Feeling awed and inspired I enjoyed the magnificence for about ten minutes and then headed back out into the afternoon sun.

Florence is a quite a pretty city and you can really tell how culture and art have thrived here for centuries; on every corner there is an ancient cathedral, a famous museum, a statue filled square or a beautiful fountain. True to its reputation, it is also quite a romantic city; dark men offer you roses while little groups of buskers play jovial classical music and lone musicians play sad wistful tunes, accompanied by an occasional emotion-filled wailing. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the streets, soaking it all up and daydreaming. I saw a few more not incredibly impressive churches and a color filled flea market in one of the church squares. Vendors offered me things from both sides and called at me to come investigate their wares, but I was only interested in seeing the colours and the lively people, not their glitzy, overpriced trinkets. The sun went down and I decided to go to my first Internet café. After an hour of emailing, researching and facebooking I headed to the hostel, ready to call it a night, only to end up going back out again with a couple of Swedish backpackers. We explored the area for awhile and found a Theremin, which is the oddest instrument I will probably ever see. From around the corner it sounded like someone was singing an opera solo, but there was no singer in sight; it was actually just a girl standing behind a box with two metal rods projecting out of it. She held one hand near each rod and without touching the rod, she would vibrate and dip her fingers, setting off a variety of high pitched tones. Upon closer inspection of the sign beside her, I learned that it was an electrical instrument and operated with two different radio frequencies that she could manipulate by moving her hands, but I still don’t fully understand how it works; I kept on expecting to see a hidden CD player. I had plans to get up quite early the next day, so I headed back after the Swedes and I drank an interesting, but tasty pint of Strong Bow cider.

The next morning I woke up at 6am, not because I’m crazy, but because I wanted to be at the famous Uffizi museum an hour before it opened, so that I could get in without a reservation. Walking through Florence that early was quite interesting, because all of the tourists that usually crowded the streets and squares were gone and I had it all to myself. I arrived at the Uffizi at 7:10am and I wasn’t surprised to see twenty people already gathered at the entrance. Fifteen minutes after I got inline, another twenty people showed up, and half an hour later there were over a hundred people! I ate my sandwich, wrote some postcards and then at precisely 8:15am the doors opened and I was in. Personally I’m not a huge fan of religious and other ancient art, but I figured that it that this museum must be famous for a reason, so I kept an open mind. The museum is in a huge U-shape, and the two inside portions of the U consisted of two endlessly long hallways with various statues lining the walls and countless paintings and gold carvings on the arched ceiling. Galleries extended from each of the hallways and spread out in a maze of religious depictions, removed altars and sarcophagi. I walked through the galleries extending from the first hallway in a semi-appreciative daze, stopping now and then to ponder over a particular facial expression, but not paying too much attention. The second hallway’s side rooms proved to me a bit more interesting because the paintings were smaller and somehow more personal; I had a special liking for a painting by Federico Brrocci of two eyes, one of a cat and one of a young child. This side also had some restored rooms from before the Uffizi was destroyed for the first time and one of these was especially nice. It was called the “Sala Della Niobe” and it is by far the most beautiful and rich looking room that I have ever seen. It was built by the Grand Duke Pietro in 1779 to house 14th century Roman sculptures depicting the Myth of Niobe (Niobe was a woman that gave birth to the most children, which made the gods jealous and forced them to kill every single one). Along with the numerous sculptures, there were four giant canvases and a huge sarcophagus. A dome in the ceiling had been decorated with minute gold roses and along each tall window there were painted frescoes. After seeing the ridiculous splendor of that room, everything else failed to impress me and I left the museum. It was 10am and I still had four hours before I had to catch my train to Rome.

I visited the national gallery, the Bargello, which had been a prison for hundreds of years, and now contained a huge amount of sculptures and artifacts. I found the building itself to be quite interesting, but the art didn’t mean much to me, other than it was good and that there were tons and tons of sculptures. Florence must have the record for sculptures per capita!

At 11am I got my backpack, checked out of the hostel and sought out what was, according to my guide, the best Gelateria in Florence. Seeing as Florence was the city in which Gelato was invented I figured that I should break my healthy eating habits and try one. It was definitely worth it and I enjoyed every bite of the hazelnut and chocolate combination that I ordered. I spent my remaining two hours wandering the streets, visiting a granary that was now a church, and window shopping. By the time I got to the train station I was completely exhausted and overheated, but also totally pleased with how much I had seen and experienced. Florence was everything that I had expected and more; its beauty and the overwhelming amount of art was spectacular, but what I loved most about it was the lively, happy and welcoming Italian atmosphere that I had fell in love with seven years ago.

Posted by Jaana M 03:34 Archived in Italy

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