Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mediterranean Madness Part V; Livorno, Pisa, and Florence, Italy

Day Three; Port Two
Lovely Livorno
Florence, Italy
Our next stop was Livorno, Italy, which is the stop for Pisa and Florence.  Seth was almost euphoric about visiting the Leaning Tower in Pisa and could hardly stay in his skin.  On this trip we had a larger private tour with Sarah's mom and dad, Mike and George Anne Brown, and her sister and her husband, Christopher and Micah Bluto.  Mike, Sarah's dad, has horrible arthritis and is wheelchair bound.  This poses several obstacles when it comes to touring.  He found a really cool travel scooter that was light weight and offered very impressive maneuverability.  And, it folded up and sat neatly in the back of the van.  I will discuss how successfully he was able to tour as the story progresses.  We met on the pier and walked out of the gate to meet our new guide for the day, and up to that point I thought the day was cloudy, but when we met Elizabetta, I know there is nothing but sunshine and lollypops in her life.  She met us with a smile that would impress a Texan, and a bubbly personality that would shame the finest French Champagne.  The best description I can use would be a fiery volcano who loved to laugh.  She was the stereotypical Italian, who spoke with both hands, even if she was driving.  With her spontaneous outbursts of "Mama Mia!" we discovered that Elizabetta was going to be a hard act to follow.  She gave us a tremendously detailed description of Italian politics, history, and current events, and made the tour an absolute delight.  We would continually laugh when she would tell a joke and crack herself up.  She knew exactly where to take us for our tickets, she knew when and where to pick us up, and she gave great advice on how to enjoy our tour.

She took us to her home town of Pisa with great enthusiasm and pointed out facts that only a local could possibly know.  She built our anticipation of the tower so much that I almost felt as though I needed a cigarette once we finally got there, and I don't even smoke!  She kept telling us that we were ahead of the barbarians who were on the larger bus tours, and that we would have the place to ourselves for at least an hour.  She was right!  The route we drove took us around the block from the tower and she paused as the tower came into view and we excitedly snapped photos through the glass windows.  Seth was about to come unglued!  Elizabetta rounded the corner and suddenly we were face to face with one of the most remarkable works or art ever constructed.
On the journey Elizabetta told us the process the tower endured in its construction, and you have to imagine the quintessential Italian telling the story for its full effect.  It went something like this:  "So, when he realized that his a'tower was a'leaning, and that it mighta fall a'down, they said STOP a'building it.  And then it a'sat there.  And then another architect said he knew how to a'fix the problem.  So, he made the columns shorter on the side that was a'leaning, and made the columns a'longer on the side that wasn't a'leaning.  And it helped, so they finished the tower.  But now, do you know what a'shape it is?  It's a BANANA!" and she laughed as if it was the first time she told the story.  She told us that modern day engineers knew the tower would eventually fall down, so they started correcting the problem.  And they did a good job.  And then the Italian government told them not to correct it too much, because it was famous because it was a'leaning.  So, they stabilized it where it wouldn't fall and left it alone.  It's quite safe to visit and climb.
And now we were standing in front of a truly magnificent masterpiece.  It is hard to imagine that the tower was almost 950 years old and that it was just right there!  When we first approached the tower, it was from the leaning side, so we didn't see just how much it actually leaned.  When we started circling the tower we saw just how imposing the slant was.  I have trouble believing that it didn't fall down!
The scroll work on the tower was incredible, and the art work fashioned into it is almost impossible to describe, so I won't try.  Just look at it yourself when you get there!

026My publisher and I decided that we would take some publicity shots while I was in Europe, so I took a newspaper from home and had my photo reading it in front of the tower.  If you're from a small town they will print that photo in the newspaper, and it will be great advertisement for my new books!  We also took the obligatory shots of us holding the tower up, or of pushing it over.

Caitie didn't quite get the idea at first.  But we finally got her posed in the right direction! And Seth was able to join in the fun! 

 Our tickets to climb the tower were for 9 o'clock that morning, and it was perfect timing.  We had walked around the tower, took our photos, and were able to climb the tower before the hoards of barbarians arrived.  The climb was not as daunting as I imagined it would be. 

Although, I freely admit it was a bit disconcerting when you got the leaning side of the spiral staircase.  The marble steps were very worn and slippery, so take your time and step deliberately while you climb.  Take your time!  Ha!  There are nearly three hundred steps, so you will be taking your time.  Plus, there had been a passing shower earlier that morning, so some of the steps were wet.  Just don't get in a hurry!  When we arrived at the top, I was shocked to see that the tower was completely hollow.  It is a cylinder with a fancy suit of armor! 
The last steps to the top and a view of the cylinder. 

The tower, of course, is a bell tower, and we meandered around the top for a while and then we realized the guard at the top was stepping out of the center of the tower and was making her way to the edge.  I asked if the bells were about to ring and she told me that it usually rings every 15 minutes, but not every time.  She told us that if we wanted to hear it ring, to wait a couple of minutes.  If it didn't ring, then they forgot to do it.  So, we waited.  After a couple of minutes it was 9:17, so we concluded it wasn't going to happen and we began our descent.  Thirty seconds later the bells rang and we were both relieved and disappointed.  It would have been loud if we were there when it happened.  So, if you see the guard getting out of the way, take your cue.
At the top!  Lots of bells.  See the guard in the blue jacket?
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 Can you see Mike on his scooter down there?

Mike wasn't able to climb the tower, and there are no elevators to the top.  Instead, he and George Anne tooled around, checking out the church and the baptistry while we made our ascent.  Other than climbing, the area was very wheel chair accessible.   Oh, and there are restrooms on site.  And they were free.
When we were getting back into the van I asked Elizabetta where the second leaning tower of Pisa was, and for the first time she frowned and announced that I ruined her surprise!  Most people don't know about the second tower, and very few tourists get to see it.  Only private tours have the flexibility to fit it in.  She took off and drove us through some winding streets and then proudly announced that her beautiful town had two towers that were doomed to fall.  The second tower was built in the 12th century and didn't have the sparkle and shine of the famous tower.
The "other" leaning tower of Pisa

Elizabetta then took us to Florence and told us many funny and fact filled stories along the way.  As I was looking at the countryside, or what I thought was the countryside, I recognized that nothing looked like the rolling hills of Tuscany.  You know what I mean?  The hills you see in paintings?  Everything was flat and...well, flat.  And Texans know flat.  I was disappointed.  Elizabetta then offered to deviate from the course for a few minutes and she would drive up a hill that was nearby and we could take some pictures. (Remember how you need to trust your guide?)  By then the clouds had lifted and the rain was finished.  As we parked on the hilltop, we were the only barbarians anywhere around, and we were alone the entire time.  What we saw was perfect.  The clouds lifted again and the sun peaked out, and we were in the heart of the rolling hills I so desperately wanted to see. 
A vineyard stretched out along the hills, and on the distant horizon you could see an old church and a bell tower.  The warm Tuscan colors were splashed across the building we could see.  The yellows, oranges, and reds were dancing across the landscape, completing the vineyards with the very image of Tuscany. We were enchanted!  Italy had cast its spell.
Seth, just before the train hit him...????

We then arrived in Florence and our love affair with Italy was fully consummated.  I have never been to a more charming town.  It was complete with the narrow winding streets, ancient Roman history, and all the bright colors of Italy.  There were many barbarians, but I never felt oppressed, and we were never really crowded.  Except for the Duomo, but I'll get to that in a minute.
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The old Roman wall and watch tower
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Florence and the Arno River, with the infamous Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo in the backgrounds.

Elizabetta took us to a hilltop in Florence (Piazzale Michelangelo) that overlooked the city.  Holy cow!  Florence is a beautiful and majestic place.  I have travelled extensively, and I've been to some incredible towns, but Florence is a special place.  We could see cathedrals and domes scattered along the horizon, and the infamous Ponte Vecchio where the Arno River passes through town.  The old city wall meanders along the valley below, completing the image. 
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The plaza overlook was easily assessable and had a restroom!

Oh, there are also restrooms at that lookout point.  And I suppose this is a good time for me to offer a diatribe on bathrooms for good measure.  I seem to remember it costing .70 Euros to enter.  There is an attendant standing there with a mop.  The very second you exit the stall, he or she immediately cleans up behind you, and they may or may not be there while you conduct your business.  You aren't really paying for a bathroom.  You're paying for a CLEAN bathroom.  And that, my friends, is worth a lot!    By the way, the men's restroom is the kind where there is only a hole, not a seat.  The women's has a sit down throne.  There were only a few places where there were no formal toilets, in fact, and the other was in Athens.  So if you were worried about that, you can relax.  There was never a toilet that was horrible.  And, some were self cleaning.  So, if you enter a toilet that is dripping wet from top to bottom, it is because when you close the door to exit, a blast of water drenches everything.  It can be quite startling if you don't know about it.  Only once did I experience a bad bathroom incident, and that was a self inflicted wound that almost caused a riot at Vatican City.  But that is reserved for tomorrow's story.
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The Duomo is just a hop, skip, and a jump from here...You can see the dome!

From that hilltop, Elizabetta took us into the heart of Florence, and dropped us off a stone's throw away from the Duomo.  She told us to take an hour and then we could all meet back at her location.  She was very worried about Mike being able to get around on his scooter, so she wanted us to reconvene to ensure that he was being taken care of properly.  We walked a block to the Duomo and staggered in our steps. 
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I seem to remember the gold doors belong to the baptistry next to the Duomo.
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It may not be real gold, but it is inspiring non the less.

The Duomo is a magnificent work of art, and a cathedral with few rivals.  The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (English: Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower) is the main church of Florence. Il Duomo di Firenze, as it is ordinarily called, was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style, and is faced with marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white.  It has incredibly detailed and intricate scroll work and sculptures adorning it from the ground all the way to the dome.  I kept trying to capture it by camera, but it was too vast to do so.  And which part do you take a picture of?  It was magnificent!  The church is actually a basilica, is one of Italy's largest churches, and the dome was the largest in the world until the modern era. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. 
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A few shots of the exterior...

Well, we certainly wanted to enter the church, but I was dismayed when I saw the line of barbarians waiting to enter.  The line was long.  But it was moving.  So we got into it.  While I'm standing in line, let me tell you of your two options when you visit the Duomo.  You can take the free, self guided tour and stand in line to enter the church.  Or, you can pay a small fee (8 Euro, I think) and stand in line to climb to the top of the dome.  I've heard it is a magnificent thing to do, but we opted to stay on the ground.  After all, we had just climbed the tower in Pisa, and our legs were jelly.  Plus, Mike was on his scooter (there is a separate side entrance for those with mobility issues.  Elizabetta made sure we knew where this was before we left her).  The wait to get into the Duomo was actually very short.  We only stood in line maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and most of that time was spent marveling at the gorgeous facade of the church exterior.  And once we entered the Duomo..., well... it was simply magnificent.  The church is ornate.  
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Tile work in the floors

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And the tile work in the floor alone is worth visiting.  Elizabetta told us that the Duomo was so ornate and so awesome that the church had to cover up a lot of its artwork (also some had been stolen and some had been removed to museums), because it was too distracting to people trying to worship.  Man, it must have been overwhelming before, because it was still magnificent in its current, toned-down state.  The domed ceiling was painted by a contemporary of Michelangelo, who might have been one of his students.  Well, I could go on and on... 
Looking up at the dome.  I know, it's hard to capture by photo...

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I attempted a close up of the fresco on the dome...

By the way, once we were inside, there was plenty of room for everyone.  It wasn't crowded at all.  AND, you do have to be dressed appropriately for the church.  No shorts that reveal your knees, and no swim suits.  You know the drill. 

After we left the Duomo, we met Elizabetta, who told us that we had 3 hours of free time.  We decided to split up as a family group and we could all do whatever we wanted.  But eating was the first thing on our radar.  We all ended up at the same restaurant in Piazza della Repubblica which is an extraordinary place to eat.  I cannot remember the name but it was across the Piazza from Caffe Gilli, which is an historic restaurant.  Had I known about it at the time we would have probably eaten there! You will recognize the Piazza by the big carousel in the center, and let me tell you, the food was incredible.
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Sorry!  We keep forgetting to take a picture before we dive in!

Sarah and the kids each ordered a pizza, and I ordered the lasagna.  I will give a tutorial about ordering pizza in Italy later on, so I won't focus on that right now.  But let me tell you, pizza in Florence is painfully good, and, even though it's nothing like American pizza, it is just as tasty.  And the lasagna, well, holy cow, and thank God Columbus brought tomatoes back to Europe!  Add the bottle of wine we was a great meal.  And it only cost about 55 Euros for the four of us.  Another bonus about this place was the Wi-Fi access.  We were able to connect our phones to their server and take care of some business.  I checked to see if the government shutdown was over, which it wasn't, and Sarah uploaded a few shots to Facebook.  I was even able to connect with my family in Texas via Face Time for a few minutes.  But, it was really early in Texas, so I accidentally woke them up.  It was about 5AM there!

Once we finished this fantastic meal, we walked to the nearest gelato place and gave Italy its fair shot at impressing us.  It was good, but so far, St. Paul was the best.  Then we walked down to the Piazza della Signoria, which is an L-shaped square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which is the town hall, so to speak.  The Piazza is rather unique in that it is the home to dozens of statues, one of which is a copy of Michelangelo's David.  Many famous statues inhabit this square, and all of them are incredible.  Most were sculpted in the 1500s.  The original David is kept at The Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, AKA "Academy of Fine Arts of Florence".  We intended to visit the Accademia, but they were hosting a special event which would have cost many more Euros.  We decided that it was more expensive than we wanted to spend.  But, we did get more free time to wander around Florence, and that was a priceless exchange. 
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David and part of his host of statues in the Piazza

At this point, our family group hit a snag.  Mike needed a bathroom, and in his scooter he was having a hard time accessing one, as most of the restrooms were downstairs.  So, Sarah went with him to find him some relief that didn't involve a fine for indecency, and I took the kids to look for souvenirs.  
We found a quiet street to explore

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We pressed through the crowd on the Ponte Vecchio in search of souvenirs.

The kids and I walked a couple of blocks down to the Ponte Vecchio, which is an historical bridge which crosses the Arno River.  It was built in the early Roman days where the Via Cassia crossed at the narrowest point.  Throughout the millennia that followed, the bridge had shops built onto it, many of which were food service stores, such as butcher shops and restaurants.  Apparently the smells on the bridge were offensive to the Medici family who crossed using a corridor built into the top, so an ordinance was passed that only jewelry stores could occupy the shops.  And we're not talking about cheap gold, either.  You're gonna spend some serious cash buying something on that bridge.  And there were scores of barbarians looking for a place to spend their money. 

Seth wanted his snow globe, and Caitie was looking for a trinket box of some kind, and I had my eyes open for a magnet and some local art.  We found it all very quickly.  In fact, all of our small purchases were made at a souvenir stand just off the bridge.  The kids picked out their items and I reached into my pocket only to realize that I had given all of my money to Sarah at lunch.  But where was she?  So, we walked the few blocks back to the Piazza, but they were nowhere in sight.  We trekked back to Ponte Vecchio and found Micah, Sarah's sister, and I borrowed enough cash from her to pay for our souvenirs.  Sarah was still a no show.  Apparently she was having trouble finding Mike a bathroom that would work for him.  But while waiting on her to return, I found a couple of artists who were painting on the street.  I bought one small water color for 15 Euros, and a really nice acrylic for 25 Euros.  By this time our group had reassembled and we were once again under the love and protection offered to us by Elizabetta, who had one more stop planned for the afternoon before shuttling us back to the ship.
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The Basilica                                              Galileo's tomb.
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Michelangelo's tomb                                Poor Leonardo's tomb is so plain...

The Basilica di Santa Croce is the principal Franciscan church in Florence, and is situated on the Piazza di Santa Croce, about a half mile south east of the Duomo.  It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile, Dante, and Rossini, thus it is known also as the Temple of the Italian Glories.  If you're into dead people, or, more accurately, into visiting the tombs of famous dead people, then you will really dig the graves found in Santa Croce, all jokes about necromancy aside.

When we finished our tour we used the restroom facilities at the church and loaded up into the van so Elizabetta could return us to our ship.  She had promised at the beginning of the day that she wouldn't talk to us on the return trip, just so she wouldn't excessively annoy us on the way back.  But, Mike was sitting in the front seat, and the two of them kept exchanging stories and laughing.  It helped make the 40 or so minute drive back to the ship pleasant.  By this time, we had spent two intense days of port calls that were both physically and emotionally draining.  Our "culture-ometer" was full, which made us tired.  We were looking forward to our evening dinner and then bed time.  So far, the evening shows on the ship were less than interesting, so we would retire fairly early.

Elizabetta was a treat for us.  Request her as your guide.  You won't regret it!

About this time we received a blessing from Mike and George Anne.  They insisted that one or two of their grandchildren spend the night with them in their room as often as possible.  This helped us tremendously.  As we mentioned earlier, our room was distastefully small, and sending one kid to their stateroom made ours more bearable.  Every night the kids would swap back and forth, allowing us much more use of our very crowded room.

A couple of thoughts about Florence before I take you to Rome...  Florence is a wonderful city, and it has all the charm and grace of any European city, and it is a beautiful place to visit.  We marked Florence as a place we dearly wished to return to some day.  And by God's grace we will make it back there.  If you're into wine, you might like to know that this area of Tuscany holds very high and restrictive standards on the wine making process.  Chianti Classico is their trademark product, and it is a wonderful dry red wine to drink with steak dinners, or with pizza and lasagna.  To ensure that you are receiving a Chianti that meets those high standards, look for the seal on the bottle that has a red rooster on it.  Only wines made to these local standards are allowed to carry that seal.  My time in Florence was meaningful in other ways as well.  During WWII, my grandfather crossed the Arno River, but under much different circumstances.  I remember him telling us about their invasion of Italy, and how they fought on the very same ground that our ports visited.  The Italians hold no ill will against the Americans, and often speak critically of what the Germans inflicted upon their beautiful cities.  But, time heals all wounds.  Over half of the barbarians touring the cities were German, and that speaks highly of the Italians' ability to overcome their past.