Italy 2013 Florence, Cinque Terre, Pisa

23 May

Cinque Terre and Pisa

West of Florence, along the coast, are five small townships that date back to the middle ages. Tiny and unassuming, they had a small part in the history of their region, which eventually came under the auspices of Pisa.

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These “five lands” (cinque terre) now provide some exquisite traveling experiences. Small gravel/sand beaches, cliff-side communities, an azure Mediterranean seashore – – what more is there to ask?

Having driven out A11 and away from the Florence rain, we spend a sunny day exploring this charming seaside area. A fabulous ocean-front lunch of local fresh seafood is followed by a short boat ride between tiny towns. One of the beaches has just last year been swept out to sea by a Spring flood, leaving only driftwood and debris behind. Many of the paths and roads are periodically covered by rock- and mud-slides. The whole area makes no bones about being remote, minimally populated, and beautifully merged with the ancient coastline.

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In every town there is something of interest, if only the narrow streets and walkways with towering, skinny apartment-style dwellings reaching up to their hanging-laundry balconies.

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After a combination of water, road, and rail transport, we depart this coastal delight for the fantastically famous town of Pisa.

It’s truly a wonder how Pisa would ever have become famous, were it not for the singular lack of geo-technology in the 16th century. Surely, had the builders of the Tower known they were placing the construction on shifting sands, so to speak, the enterprise would never have taken place. Furthermore, if the Tower had actually been built on solid ground and never leaned over, then also the town would never have achieved its current notoriety.

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But shfiting sands they were indeed, and the enormous weight of the marble tower pressed inexorably down on the soft strata below. As of today, the 193-foot-high tower has its upper edge leaning over 20 feet away from the base, a 10% slope which is seriously threatening the long-term fate of the tower.

Ongoing engineering efforts are involved with shoring up the underlying stratum by various means. In the meanwhile, visitors are limited to 25 in number at a time, no luggage please, to restrict the top-heavy component.

Of course we all knew what to expect, but truly, walking up to this impossible building is still a strking experience. Adding to the oddity of it all, the flagpole atop the edifice is plumb to the horizon. This double-tilt gives the oddest visual effect.

The usual tourist gaggle is busy out in the courtyard, posing with hands or backs carefully positioned to support the tower from further tilting. In order to achieve the correct photo angle, many “arttists” are encroaching on the no-trespass lawn area. Periodically, a uniformed guard begins shrieking on his neck-chain whistle, chasing reluctant photographers and wanderers off of “his” lawn – – sometimes a bit belligerently. As he works his way up the lawn, more trespassers creep in behind him, prompting an extra-enthusiastic series of whistle blasts.

24 May

Some More Florence

Our only goals for today are to feed ourselves, and see the town from the high mount of the Piazalle di Michelangelo. This meager ambition works reasonably well, but not entirely without some speed bumps, as it were.

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A liesurely sleeping-in morning begins with a sunny view off our balcony.

We launch the day with a walk over into “town”, AKA Tourist Central. Our path takes us two blocks down our apartment street of Via Di Maggio, across a broad foot-bridge spanning the Arno River, and over (again) to Piazza del Vecchio and our new-favorite restaurant.

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As previously, the waiter is friendly and patient. This is a remarkable departure from many of the Italian waiters we have encountered. Surprisingly, even though they are immersed in the tourist trade and absolutely make their livings from it, many seem downright petulant, and even irritated, at our presence. Rolling of eyes, and presumptive exits without communication, are quite common. At Rivoire, we are treated cordially, and with some tolerance of our rambunctious juniors.

Our casual, non-extravagant breakfast sets us back the usual US$175, which by now we are somewhat accustomed to. Dang.

Karin and I muse that we could probably write a not-very-popular book entitled “Italy on less than $1000 a Day”. We have discovered that it’s a LOT cheaper to eat standing up – – around half the price – – but it’s kinda not as comfortable, y’know?

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After breakfast, we catch a cab up to the high hill overlooking Florence. Some weather is blowing through, and if we wait a bit, we can get some really nice photos of a cloud-bedecked sky behind a David copy, looking grandly out over the ancient city.

Furthere up the hill, there’s an old Franciscan church, wonderfully and somewhat understatedly finished in somber but beautiful woods, stained glass, and a grand pipe organ behind the altar. By now, the boys are pretty much out of any patience for the day (also known as out of control), and after one quiet microsecond of peace, immediately begin a fight just in front of the first pew. We three adults (especially Opa) are also out of patience, and a brief, but very serious, communication ensues. I decide to let Karin and Martina enjoy the church and quell the kids, and I spend the time snapping photos and chilling out a bit.

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After leaving the church, we once again find ourselves dealing with the extraordinary Italian service mentality. In this cse, we simply can’t find a cab to transport 5 people. Even after calling the cab company, the dispatcher is so busy yapping that he can’t hear me say “5 people 5 people cinque persona cinque cinque 5 5 5” – – – he says cab will be there in “few minute” and hangs up on my $1/minute call. By the time an hour has gone by, and no cab of more than 4-person capacity has shown up, we call it quits and take two cabs back home. Turns out the fares for two are only 1 euro more than the fare was for one. Go figure.

After we get back to the apartment, we have a snack and leave Martina and the kids alone for a bit. Karin and I wander the streets for a while, letting the day darken. People on the streets are different from the day crowd, but we still hear many different languages in the passing conversations. We stop by a pizzeria and pick up some grub for the kids and head back home.

Everywhere we go, we are of course amazed at the antique narrow streets and encroaching walls and sidewalks. We have long since gotten used to the mixed vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and you probably couldn’t tell us from locals as we wend our way through the dense maze.

clip_image018But the specialized vehicles are still a source of wonder, especially the dinky little “cars” that make a Smart Car look over-sized. These things are 2-seater all-electrics, and they are very well suited to the small cities and horrible parking situations.

This one has a wheelbase that is shorter than the width of a small car.

Golf carts dwarf it.

25 May

Firenze a Venezia (Florence to Venice)

Today starts out well, then stumbles a bit, nearly falls flat on its butt, recovers, and ends up in a truly sterling fashion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Remember the hot water that’s good for 3 out of 5 showers? Well, would you believe 0 out of 5? Yeah, no hot water for the last day and a half. But despite the frigid washing conditions, we launch downstairs to a nice breakfast. The rain-soaked, soggy round-trip does not daunt our spirits, and we clean out the apartment in preparation for our 1:30PM train ride. Happily (for the NEXT tenant), the water is hot again as we depart.

But the rainy day has its ancillary effects. NOBODY in northern Italy wants to walk anywhere, and the cabs are horribly over-booked. We call for the two cabs needed for the 5 of us and all our baggage (5 roll-ons, 2 rolling carry-ons, 2 back-packs, two purses and a messenger bag). We are told that the (highly responsive) Italian cab dispatcher will send one cab sort-of right away kind of, and please call back in 5 minutes to request the second cab (really, I’m not making this up). So we call back in 5 minutes. And again in another 5 minutes. Again. And again.

Meanwhile, the first cab has arrived. We are very skittish about getting separated, especially in strange places with lousy cell phone coverage. So we wait, with the meter running at a euro a minute, for the next cab. And wait. Then, some more waiting. At about a quarter to ten euros, the second cab shows up and we splash our way across town.

Our cab driver is a cute little Italian gal with a kind of a flip hair-do. She speaks pretty good English, and we chat that on rainy days, her fancy hair sags a bit, but business is so good that she can afford to pay the hairdresser for repairs.

So both cabs arrive at the pick-pocket-gypsy-infested train station at pretty much the same moment. We again, for maybe the 735th time, warn the kids to hold onto their bags at all times. By this time, they are actually listening (sort of), and they comply.

As we wend our way into the station, we are 50 minutes early for our 1:30 departure time, and are starting to feel relaxed. We find a place to gather our luggage in a safe fashion, and for the 38th time in 3 weeks, I look again at our train tickets. Oh, shit.

I have discovered that the departure time that I have permanently engraved into my brain since sometime in last April, is actually the arrival time. The train departs at 11:30 (about an hour ago) and ARRIVES in Venice at 1:30. These two times are not actually labeled – – they’re just printed in different places on the ticket. And for 4 weeks I’ve only noticed the latest one.

I feel Opa’s reputation, as a profoundly precise planner and organizer, crumbling into sand and dust. What a royal screw-up, and it’s not just me or just me and Karin, it’s all five of us that will be penalized because of my oversight.

Feeling about 6 inches tall, I scurry over to Informzione, only to be told what I already know: tough luck, sucker. But there is a glimmer of hope: seats are still available on the 1:30 train (which arrives in Venice at 3:30 of course). Another scurry to the FastTicket machine, where we actually are able to buy a second set of tickets. Interestingly enough, the on-site tickets cost us about 2/3 of what we paid for advance booking. Hmmmm.

So, we’ve pretty much recovered from the disaster, and we even have a few minutes spare to pick up some snacks for the boys from the densely-packed McDonalds in the train station. Karin and I wait outside while Martina and the boys dive in to search out a Happy Meal or two. It’s 15 minutes to departure. Five minutes go by, then 10. A new disaster looms on the horizon.

Martina and the boys have been swallowed by the McDonalds gaping maw, mixed with the chewed-up morass of tourists and travelers within. No amount of frantic searching or voicemail-answered phone calls can solve the riddle of their disappearance.

Three minutes before departure time, they come casually traipsing toward us, fresh new Happy Meals in hand. We arrive at the platform at 1:30….. Sharp…. Show tickets…. board train…… Simple, huh?

Now we’re on the train, picking up speed and soon zooming at 200k across the landscape toward Venice. Just before boarding, I took the handoff of the un-consumed Happy Meals. I am “holding the bag”, so to speak. Seating is supposedly pre-assigned, but experienced travelers from all nations have learned to grab first and (maybe) pay later. So we sit down in kind of a scramble. But before I can get to or into my seat, a tired-looking conductor points at my Happy Meal bag. Sticky brown fluid is drooling out the bottom of my soggy sack and puddling on the pristine 1st-class coach floor. It has become a decidedly UN-happy meal, sadly while on my watch. A woman with a cane, and two nuclear-energy small boys, have successfully transported Happy McD across eight train platforms – – but poor Opa can’t even carry it onto the train without self-destructing. Par for the afternoon.

I set the swampy, sticky bag down in between cars (unfortunately it’s also a carpeted area, dang!!), and again try for my seat – – or at least some reasonable substitute in the same car as my family. By now, mine and everyone else’s feet are sticking to the floor where the Cokes have Happily poured out of the sodden sack. People approach our area, wakling silently along the resilient floor, and then scritch-thwack-scritch-thwack go their shoes, skipping and sticking across the flypaper film we’ve painted on the floor.

Somewhat from guilt, and perhaps not a little revulsion, the squatters that fill up the first class seats are clearing out, and I finally manage to sit down, only three seats displaced from my assigned perch.

Beginning to relax, I am soon presented with a sad specter of the war-weary conductor. He is armed only with a handful of flimsy napkins, using his feet to mop up the Coke-ey mess, with only a painstakingly weary look on his face to bely his disgust.

The floor dries to a deceptive dull sheen – – but it’s still as sticky as double-backed carpet tape. Passers-by slow down, suddenly aware that they must make sure the floor does not pull the shoes off their feet. scritch-thwack-scritch-thwack I unsuccessfully pretend ignorance, for all of Italy knows that it was me.

After that lengthy introduction to our train journey, it’s a pretty relaxing, even sleepy ride, and we arrive about two hours later at a Venice station (“arrive a Venezia”). Note that I did not say THE Venice station. I stand up, gather my jacket and bags, and prepare to exit the train along with a gaggle of other travelers. Some Americans ask me “Is this Venice?”, and I assure them, in my most senior experienced-traveler soothing way, that “Venezia” means “Venice” and they are indeed arrived. They bustle off the train – – – a little too soon to hear Karin tell me that there are actually two stops in Venice, one in the grimy industrial section, and one in the tourist-oriented island of fame. Ooops. I hope they were able to catch a cab or something.

Finally, we get to the REAL Venice, catch an $80 10-minute water-taxi ride, and arrive on the island. We scramble a bit with hotels and arrangements, and actually have to change hotels at the very last minute. In the hotel change, we ask (nicely) for a water taxi ride to the new digs. Then we beg. For only e20, the boat drivers can’t be bothered to go out in the rain. We end up dragging our 7 bags up and down the stepped bridges across the southern half of Venice, wandering shoulder-width alley-ways and holding our phones skyward for a glimpse of GPS satellites. Brandon is uncomplainingly toting his mother’s behemoth bag-with-carryon; Bryce is an absolute Prince throughout the journey, and the little 7-year-old jock is hauling 50 pounds of suitcases over the bridges with nary a whimper. What a stud.

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As we check into our new hotel, we find out why it has been such an incredible challenge to book rooms: this is the week of the international art exposition in Venice, and people from all over the world are converging on this tiny locale. But despite our mistakes, luck smiles on us and we end up with two superb rooms; in fact, Martina and the kids are in a roof-top suite with wonderful views of the city and canals.

As we take our first walk, the sights of Venice are beyond our expectations. After our somewhat modest experience of Florence, Venice is truly a wondrous destination. The canals, boats, architectures, and even the shops and vendors, are simply a delight. Even after such an arduous day, we are excited and energized.

We have a terrific – – and affordable! – – dinner in a nearby restaurant. The kids are calm, the food is good, the prices reasonable, and life is, once again, very good.

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