Saturday, March 16, 2013

Europe Trips: Italy: An Italian Sojourn Part 4

Pisa & Florence
The most famous cousin cities of Italy are Rome and Venice. They figure in the top 3 must see places in Italy for every tourist. A close contender to these would be Pisa – but obviously for the world wonder Leaning Tower of Pisa and Florence –the capital or the birth place of Renaissance. They say you need at least 5 days to absorb and appreciate Florence. For a tourist like me, who is right now in a blood rush to visit most of the happening or famous places in this leg of my career and age, the 5 day Florence trip can still wait till i am in my late 40’s! At the same time, i did want to visit the best places in the limited time i had. Thanks to the excellent service of Trenitalia, i was able to do a fair justice to Pisa and Florence.

On the first Saturday this March, my wife & I were in 4 different Italian cities on the same day, where the distance between our beginning and final destinations was approximately 650 to 700 kms. We left Rome in the morning by the 8.10 am train and reached Pisa by 11.00 am. In Pisa, we walked from the station to the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which is a good 20-25 minute walk one way). We caught the train to Florence at 1.11pm, reached Florence at 2.11pm. In Florence, we hit the streets trying to make most of the six hours we had there before we took the train to Venice at 8.30pm. We finally reached Venice Station at 10.30 pm.  This may appear almost like a military regime and less of a vacation for an avid reader like you – and thankfully my wife was patient throughout – silently bearing the ordeal – which perhaps took a larger toll on her than me. But nevertheless, it didn’t dampen our spirits or enthusiasm to still tick off all that we had planned to cover in these cities. An important acknowledgement is also to the Italian Trains, which are very reliable, clean and definitely fast – as some of the trains clocked 250 kmph wish washing us through miles of Italian landscapes – including houses with sloping roofs, the blue sea, snow clad peaks of the Italian Alps or plain farms and green grass. It was almost like travelling on a train in India, when you will see the soil, vegetation and house structures change as you travel from one part of the country to another in a single day.

Once our train reached Pisa, we got down at this very nice and quiet station which had an old world charm of its own – out of the hustle and bustle of Rome. It wasn’t difficult to find the office in the station where we could leave our luggage for a modest fee, while we explored Pisa. Though there was a bus that could take us close to the leaning tower of Pisa, we chose to walk – as it was no more than 20 – 25 minute walk (each way). It ended up being a wise decision, as Pisa is a very nice small town. We walked across the River Arno on a bridge and caught sight of a beautiful scene with color building on one side and church on the other – separated by the quiet but firm flow of the River Arno. Enjoying in the rivers arms were two folks with their boat out in the waters.

River Arno and the background in Pisa
As we zig zagged, we were surprised to come across an authentic Indian restaurant just 5 minutes before the Leaning Tower of Pisa – with a very nice decoration from the outside - with a traditional Indian cyclerickshaw. We just nodded our heads in submission as a matter of fact collectively sighing “We Indians are everywhere! We cannot escape our own clan!”

Trad'nal Indian cycle rickshaw
A walk from this Indian restaurant to the Leaning Tower of Pisa is hardly five minutes. Once you keep walking towards the white shaped Duomo of the Pisa, your heart starts beating in anxiety to catch the wonder of the world that you have always read about since childhood, but had never seen with your own eyes. As you almost come to the square in front of the Pisa Duomo and you turn your head to the right hand side, you will find the Leaning Tower of Pisa leaning as it was in the books, in your mind and on the internet Рalmost naughtily Рinviting you to give the clich̩ pose that tourists so often give to stop the tower from falling.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Duomo at Pisa

Capturing it all - from the front of Leaning Tower

Post photo shoots, we walked back to Pisa station taking the same route and we then grabbed quick hot sandwiches to have on the way and rushed to catch the 1.11pm train to Florence. Though we had planned for a later train, we were allowed to board an earlier train by the railway booking office. Advance booking of the tickets for this entire intra Italy travel journey was a boon in disguise for us. It saved us a lot of time and effort as all our tickets were printed out at home in the UK before we set afoot in Italy.

One hand is enough to correct the tilt!

Florence – the capital of Tuscan region has been aptly called the “Athens” of medieval ages. It is also the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence has been declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is one of world’s most beautiful cities – artistically and architecturally. Some of world’s greatest artists – Micahelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli – all have spent some time in Florence and soaked their sweat and blood in this great city to further enhance their artistic endeavours.

Florence today is home to some of the great museums like Uffizi Gallery, Museo dell'Accademia (that houses Michaelangelo’s David) and other places of artistic and historical significance like Pitti Palace, Piazza della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral and Ponte Vecchio. We chose to visit only the top five per our research and interests amongst these and in the 6 hours we had in Florence,  even that looked unlikely in the beginning. But we did enough justice to these places.

1. Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral:
The walk to this cathedral is about 10 minutes from Florence station. As you start nearing the Florence cathedral, you start admiring it for what it is and has been. The basilica is one of Italy's largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately the camera cannot do justice to this splendid marvel. Walk around the church for stunning views!

The cathedral looks equally stunning at night.

It is one of the best cathedrals i have seen so far in Europe – other than Notre Dame in Paris.

2. Museo dell'Accademia: The museum that is notoriously famous for just one important piece of work that has been discussed, debated and dissected by art lovers, thinkers and philosophers for centuries – Michaelangelo’s David. We have all read the story of David and Goliath during our growing up years on how the diminutive David gets the better of Goliath – the demon who is many times physically powerful over David. David wins the war through his innocence, intellect and boyish charm. Watching Michaelangelo’s David in person just brings the old famous story to life. David has been carved from a single marble stone and reflects all the qualities that the author had attributed to him in the David vs Goliath story. You can see David’s muscle jutting at the right levels, his nerves seen jutting out at his forearms. Even the chip on his toe nails, the balance of his body resulting in the poise of his back, neck and buttocks has been sculpted to needle accurate precision. You are not allowed to photograph the original David, but you can take pictures of the replica of David kept at Piazza della Signoria. David is worth the effort folks. If you are planning to skip this museum, probably that is a wrong choice!

You can also see other pieces of work from Michaelangelo – Pieta and four other unfinished sculptures. The original Pieta from Michaelangelo is of course kept in the St Peters Basilica in the Vatican City. The other unfinished sculptures also have a raw finished charm to them and look pretty detailed enough.

3. Piazza della Signoria:  This L shaped square is the focal point of the origin and history of Florence. It is a very famous meeting place amongst tourists and continues to serve as the political hub of Florence to this day. It is located close to the Florence Cathedral. Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) as it is also called is a town hall of this great city. Overlooking the square with its copy of Michelangelo's David statue as well the gallery of statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi. We were lucky to catch a march by the square by a ground of uniformed guards or people in costumes of guards. It definitely took us back in history - to the times when major announcements would have been made atop the tower followed by a march by the troops and soldiers - bonded in solidarity and unison to crush other invaders. 

Replica of Michaelangelo's David 
4. Loggia dei Lanzi: it is one of the most significant public places in Italy, and it hosts cultural points and museums. It is effectively an open-air sculpture gallery of antique and Renaissance art including the Medici lions. It is located in the premises of Palazzo Vecchio itself.

Medici Lion

Rape of the Sabine Women

Perseus with Head of Medusa

5. Ponte Vecchio: Ponte Vecchio or Old Bridge over the Arno river in Florence is the one of the oldest bridges - first built in 996 and then re-built over the last few centuries. It was the only bridge that perhaps was not destroyed during WW II - especially under the orders of Hitler. Today, jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers throng the bridge -thats why you see the windows on the bridge! Economic concept of "bankruptcy" originated here - when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the "banco") was physically broken ("rotto") by soldiers, and this practice was called "bancorotto" (broken table; possibly it can come from "banca rotta" which means "broken bank")

Ponte Vecchio Bridge

It is romantic to watch the sunset over Ponte Vechhio. Also, walk on the bridge – where the actual shops are and peek into their windows to see glittering gold and diamonds from Italy. More than the sparkle of the jewels, the price tags on them will open your eyes further and leave your mouth open in awe.  And just before your wife starts getting interested to focus on a few of the gold ornaments, its time to enjoy a coffee and lemon cake in one of the nearby cafeterias – changing topics from gold and jewellery to picturesque scenery and Florence renaissance!

Romantic view of the evening from Ponte Vecchio

Shops on Ponte Vecchio Bridge

The walk back to the Florence train station is enjoyable at night. Catch a glimpse of the Florence cathedral at night as well. We were surprised with the Florence city centre – which had  a very vibrant and young crowd. All the best designer brands were having their shops and most of them had a decent number of customers inside. Apart from tourists, the local population also seemed to be able to afford expensive brands – which shows the orientation towards style and fashion in this ancient city.

You can also leave your bags at Florence station for a nominal fee – just like in Pisa/ Rome or any place in Italy and collect it on your way back to your next destination. Food in Florence station wasn’t bad and we had warm panini’s with different mix of vegetables with Arancia Juice.

As you bid the city goodbye – you cannot help but observe that even the train station wall clock has an artistic background. Maybe that`s why this city has rightfully been the birthplace of Renaissance?

Florence train station


Preeti Goel said...

Awesome!! Enjoying the read to its core... Fabolous description of your travel!!

Atreya rocks said...

Thanks for the encouragement Preeti! Could be better though - will add the last section on Venice soon!

admin said...

Best article on Italy. Keep it up! I hope you will check out my Online Travel Blog on Pisa. I explained the entire history of Pisa, Italy and also all the transportation facilities.