Leaning Toward Pisa and Florence

Yesterday (Saturday) we left Monterosso and headed to Florence, with a 3-hour stop in Pisa on the way. Now being veterans of the rails we felt confident in booking trains for each leg of the journey on the spot -- three in all. And this time, we boarded the correct ones!

We considered skipping Pisa, but decided at the last minute to stop there to see the legendary landmark. The train enroute to Pisa from La Spezia was a little sketchy with some weird characters aboard -- we were relieved to get off. We did pass through Carrara, the home of the famous white marble used by all the renowned sculptors of this area. At first glance, the hills/mountains there looked snow-capped, but then I realized these were the marble mines.

The best way I can describe Pisa is that it struck me as the Wisconsin Dells of Italy. That's not a perfect analogy, but close enough. The train station was dirty, but ... and this is a really big deal -- it had a McDonalds!  And we had to pee, so it seemed a perfect time to satisfy our cravings for American fast food and use the toilet, using our receipt to gain access. This would be the first of two hamburgers for Sam this day.

After filling up on french fries, we checked our backpacks at a baggage drop and started the mile walk toward the Leaning Tower. We didn't need a map, because all you have to do is follow the other tourists! Lining the streets all along the way are shops and street vendors, selling every imaginable variation of kitschy crap. By now, I have come to terms and am at peace without owning a selfie stick or an LED-transmitting flying object or a Bart Simpson leaning tower t-shirt.

Sam was the first to spot the tower, yelling "there it is"! I was in awe -- and shock. I saw the tower leaning but also saw a large crane next to it, appearing to be part of some massive enginerring effort to re-set the tower back to a vertical position. Our disappointment was abated when we quickly realized this was a forced perspective optical illusion, one of many to follow. Once we arrived at the tower, Sam and I did our photo-op work while Kristin and Sydney hung out in the shade, away from the mob of people. We took our shots and got the hell out of dodge. Off to Florence!

On the way to Florence it was clear we were in Tuscany, with its characteristic rolling hills and villages coming into view. We arrived at Santa Maria Novella terminal in under an hour and walked the short few blocks to our hotel, Hotel Roma, located directly on Piazza Santa Maria Novella. We essentially dropped our bags in the room, freshened up a bit and then immediately began our trek to Piazelle Michelangelo, the outdoor plaza which sits high above Florence on the south side of the River Arno. It was a relatively long walk and required climbing hundreds of steps to reach the peak, but the views there are spectacular. And there was a market in operation at the top, with vendors selling all types of food and drink. I've become addicted to all-things pistachio while here, so had dessert before dinner, enjoying a pistachio pastry. Kristin and Sydney had a pizza-type empanada (fusion food). And this is where Sam had his second hamburger, which required a comical 20-minute wait to receive. The particular vendor was using an electric grill with power equivalent to an Easy-Bake oven. Sam and I laughed to ourselves, knowing that a Weber Smoky Joe could perform this job in five minutes. And the dollop of ketchup he put on the burger was barely visible. I didn't have the heart to tell the guy that my kid is one of those that puts ketchup on his ketchup. And to top it off, his hamburger wasn't fully cooked so he ended up tossing it. Oh well, when in Florence!. After viewing the beautiful sunset, we headed back down the hill and returned to Hotel Roma. The kids vegged in the room while Kristin and I spent a few minutes out on the piazza listening to some guy on a violin with pre-recorded accompaniment. Then it was lights out.

Today, Sunday was another full day. We had 8:30 reservations at the Uffizi art gallery, so grabbed breakfast on the walk from our hotel. The early reservations and timed entrances there ensure the crowds are controlled, which made for a great experience. We had downloaded Rick Steves' audio guides and used those instead of paying for gallery versions. Saw lots of Rafael, Titian, Botticelli, Da Vinci, et al.

After the Uffizi, we returned to our hotel for a short break, then headed the other direction (north) for a 1PM reservation at the Accademie, home of Michelangelo's famous statue of David. Even with pre-booked reservations, we waited in line for about 30 minutes but had a nice chat with a trio of retirees from Georgia, exchanging stories of our travels. It beat the alternative of the other line, where non-reserved visitors waited for hours. 

We expected to be underwhelmed by the David, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Our jaws dropped when we turned the corner into the first long room and the 14-foot masterpiece came into view. We darted to the statue and got an up close and personal view of David in all his glory. Circling the base, we were able to inspect this stunning work from all angles. It's one of those sights you don't want to leave, realizing you may never again see it in your lifetime. We looked at the other unfinished works by Michelangelo, then headed out to the streets.

One of the lessons we've learned late on this trip is not to wait until we are tired and hungry to begin to hunt for food. Too many times we've walked past crowded restaurants at night, looking like vultures to those seated, I'm sure. So today, we had dinner at 4 PM and enjoyed the best meal of our trip at Casa del Vin Santo. The bistecca fiorentine here was very good.

We closed the day out with a sunset stroll around the duomo at Santa Maria del Fiore, walking under Brunelleschi's famous dome and more gelato, of course. Then a lazy lounge on the piazza back at the hotel and it was day finito.

Tony Bennett sighting on the train to Pisa

Syd and me riding the rails

Hints of home

Gotta have this

Gotta have this

The Leaning Tower "re-verticalization project" 

Sam and the obligatory photo-op

This guy striking a ritualistic pose

Hotel Roma on the right. Santa Maria Novella on left

The hamburglar at Piazelle Michelangelo 

Sunset at Piazelle Michelangelo

Cappuccino run near the Uffizi

Ponte Vecchio bridge from Uffizi second floor

Michelangelo's David

Bistecca Fiorentine

Walking the streets of Florence

On Piazza Santa Maria Novella, right outside our hotel's front door