Saturday 4 July 2015

Traversing Tuscany: Pisa and Florence

Italy 13th – 15th May 2015


In the 12th century, Pisa’s cathedral lacked a bell tower.  In an attempt to right this, Pisan Berta di Bernado donated a large sum of money to help the city get to work on building the tower.  During the construction progress things started to go downhill when the foundations started to move, and despite many attempts over the years to rectify the problem, we are still left today with the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa—or, as I like to think of it, that tower where tourists do silly poses.

According to our Camperstop book, there was a motorhome Sosta around a five minute walk from the square in which the cathedral is located (Piazza Dei Miracoli).  Upon our arrival, we instead discovered an area that appeared to be dedicated to tourist bus parking with No Camping signs; perhaps the city didn't have enough room to accommodate all of the buses coming in.  We instead followed their signs to the new Sosta, which seemed to wind halfway around the city of Pisa, prompting several instances of ‘Are we still going the right way?’, including a detour to a Lidl where, after buying some bits, we went on the mobile internet to get some actual
GPS coordinates for the new place (N43.72104 E10.42061, Prices €12/night, €5/6hr or €1/hr, electric available for extra surcharge).

We took the 20-25 minute walk into Pisa, at which point we stumbled into the cathedral square purely by chance and promptly took it upon ourselves to mock the tourists who were posing with the tower.  And then, because we have a sense of humour, joined in to take a picture of Matt holding the tower.  Selfie sticks were being used in abundance here, although the plague was not quite to the same extent as seen in Venice.  I’d rate the selfie stick presence at a 6/10, whereas Venice was a 9.

After a wander through the town in which we managed to pick up some free WiFi near the University library, we had an interesting time trying to leave Pisa in which Daisy the sat nav grew a sudden love of low bridges we couldn’t pass beneath (thanks to an old aqueduct that ran across a large expanse of eastern Pisa).  After the experience of Crazy Daisy’s advice and the twenty minutes or so it added onto our journey, we finally found our way out of the city and onto the main road towards Florence, known as the Fi-Pi-Li (as it connects Florence, Pisa and Livorno).

Our destination was an Aire in the small town of Montopoli in Val d’Arno; after taking the turn-off, we got lost in possibly one of the most confusing slip-road layouts I have yet to come across, and promptly found ourselves redirected back onto the Fi-Pi-Li.  Once more, we had disagreements with Daisy along the way; I am starting to accept that, in the age of modern technology, my role as navigator entails making decisions about when to listen and when to override the suggestions given by the sat nav.

The view from the top of Montopoli in Val d'Arno
Montopoli in Val d’Arno is a small, hilltop town overlooking the Tuscan hills.  The streets were tight, and it appears the Aire was used more by locals without a driveway to store their motorhomes on than by people actually stopping over in the town.   Only a handful of the vans near us were actually occupied; the vehicle to our left appeared to be covered in aged parking tickets.  We went for a walk around the town whilst we were in the area, but it was a very quiet, traditional place with very few people around.  Whilst here, the mosquitoes decided I would make a fantastic night time feast.  I took it upon myself to point out each of my numerous bites to Matt the next day, but given that he still had a swollen lump on his head from a bite at Tamerici, possibly I should have tried to get sympathy from elsewhere.

As Florence was next on the agenda, we went a little further along the Fi-Pi-Li to find a place to overnight that was a little closer to the city.  The point we were aiming for was in a town called Capraia e Limite; we left the main road and travelled through a built-up town before finally coming across a bridge with a 2m width restriction.  Looking at maps, this showed us there was no other way to pass; we turned around and, purely by chance, stumbled across a parking area in the next town along (Montelupo Fiorentino) that was being used by other local motorhomes (N43.73044, E11.02306).  Whilst not an official stopover point, we decided that seeing as most of the others appeared to have been parked for quite some time with no trouble, we would stay the night and be prepared to move on in the rare chance of being asked to do so.


The Duomo, aka Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
We set out to Florence early in the morning, despairing at the city traffic that greeted us.  Like most Italian cities, the roads are tight, perfect for scooters and terrible for just about anything else.  Attempting to cross a roundabout is less a case of waiting your turn and more a case of ‘Which car do we trust not to crash into the side of the van when we edge out from our spot?’  We headed to a motorhome parking point (N43.75173 E11.24388) that was €1/h or €15/24h, and around a 2km walk into the city centre.  Most of this walk was down a large hill; we tried not to think about the fact that once you go down, eventually you are going to have to come back up again.  We had a look around the main attraction in Florence, which is the Duomo, more formally known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.  Despite it being a weekday, the queue to get to the ticket point alone rivalled the longest queues we had seen in Venice on a Saturday, and so we didn’t visit the inside of the building.  The Lookie Lookie men were out in full force again, this time with a hefty stock of umbrellas and ponchos to guard against the drizzling sky.  In the afternoon when the weather fared up, their stock very rapidly swapped back to the regular fare of selfie sticks and other memorabilia.

We visited Florence’s food market, which is a large 19th century building filled with countless stalls selling, as well as the standard fruit, vegetable, meat and fish selection, lots of delicious looking deli products and snacks, as well as stalls selling single servings of popular dishes like Lasagne and Gnocchi.  We got a snack lunch from one of the stalls that was like a thick crusted pizza complete with various toppings, priced by the kilo.

After a walking detour via the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and back to the river Arno, we went to Piazza della Signoria, which is the main square outside Florence’s main art gallery, home to the famed statue David.  Outside the art gallery are dozens of statues, including a smaller reproduction of David by the entrance, as well as many local artists selling their work or offering to draw portraits and caricatures.

As if you needed any more reminders what the transport method of choice is...
I'd probably look that miserable too if I'd had pigeons defecating on my head for centuries

The Aire/Sosta at Greve in Chianti
After crossing back over the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge and making the tiring walk back up the long hill to the van, we headed south into the nearby Chianti region, known for the wine that is produced there, and parked in a free Aire (N43.59066, E11.31355) at the town of Greve in Chianti.  I was feeling pretty sorry for myself with a combination of heat and insect bites, so we cracked out the television and DVD player for the first time in three weeks of travel.


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