Wednesday 6th June 2012
The invasion of Europe went well. The worst part was standing in line for 45 minutes at Jet2’s “bag drop”. (When you check in on-line, you still have to check in your luggage at the airport. It’s a stupid system.)
At Pisa airport, I decided to take the bus into town, rather than the train as I had done on previous occasions. The distance is only about two kilometres, which ought to make the train the obvious choice, if it was operated as a continuous shuttle. But it isn’t. They only run twice per hour.
Bus it was then. That only took a few minutes anyway, and I walked the short distance to the hotel. It was about seven o’clock by then, and so a short time later, I headed into Pisa centre. The area around the station isn’t as dingy as it used to be, and the newly-refurbished Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II is stylish and connects directly to Corso Italia, Pisa’s most upmarket shopping street.
That leads to the half-way bridge, the Ponte Mezzo, over the Arno, and directly to Borgo Stretto, a characterful street with medieval and renaissance buildings.
In that old part of town, I found a promising-looking restaurant and had a fine dinner.
On the recommendation of the Guardian newspaper [http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2012/may/25/tuscany-beer-bars-tour-italy] (Yes, I read The Guardian. Do you want to make something of it?) I located Orzo Bruno, a hostelry serving microbrewery beers. Now, I’m no beer expert, but for the experience, I had a half-litre of two of their offerings: Montemagno, red, double-malted with honey, 7.2%; and Gorgona, pale, double-malted, 7.1%.
Thursday 7th June 2012
I realised that I had only two full days in Pisa, and that the following Saturday would probably be tiring, with the long drive. I decided that if I was going to do a big trip then the Thursday would be the day for it. I walked to the station and, from the ticket machine, bought a ticket to Vernazza, in the Cinque Terre. As it happened, the optimum route, as selected by machine, was a direct and relatively fast Intercity to Monterosso, also one of the Cinque Terre towns, and then a local hop. It gave me two tickets, meaning that I could get off at Monterosso and then go on to Vernazza whenever it suited me.
The station at Monterosso is half-way up the cliff, with views down to the beach and the bay. There’s a promenade above the beach, and everything is quite small scale and low key. Not an over-developed resort.
The old part of town is “round the corner” in the next bay, with a tunnel bored through the cliff to link the two parts. I assume that it was a solution to allow the railway station to be accessible, in spite of the only possible rail route having to miss the town.
I bought a slab of foccacia with olives for lunch, and browsed and idled for a couple of hours. No beach or swims for me. Not my thing.
In the later afternoon, I went back to the station and found that there was a train to Vernazza in under half an hour. Actually, there wasn’t — I hadn’t noticed that the service was Sundays and Feast Days only. It meant that I had to wander around for about another hour, before taking the short, five-minute ride to Vernazza.
There was one time earlier in the year when I was bored and channel-surfing on the television, and I came to a scene of a pretty Mediterranean seaside town. It looked to me as though it could be one of the Cinque Terre towns, and indeed, with a little internet research later, I discovered it to be Vernazza. (The programme was an episode of “Rosemary and Thyme”, which I don’t usually watch, even though Felicity has still got it, by God.)
Vernazza is smaller than Monterosso, and rather more “quaint”. I liked it.
All the Cinque Terre towns are still recovering from the floods and landslides of late 2011, but a lot of hard work has gone on, and most things are back to normal.
I took a slow, local train to La Spezia, where I changed for Pisa without leaving the station platforms. (Perhaps I should have performed a reconaissance for future reference.) In Pisa, it was a quick brush-up before going back into the old town for a pizza. Cheap and nourishing, like the half-litre of local wine which accompanied it.
Friday 8th June 2012
I’d seen the Leaning Tower on three or four previous visits, but had never been inside. In the early days, it was still closed for the rescue work which stabilized its lean, and then on later day-trips, I was up against the booking system. Because the authorities want to restrict wear and tear, only small parties may visit the tower, half an hour at a time, and it costs a whopping fifteeen euros. You must also book your time slot in advance, which in peak times might be many hours ahead. On previous occasions, I’d decided “some other time” when I saw the length of the wait.
Actually, on this occasion, the queue wasn’t so bad, about 90 minutes, and I could easily fill that time by looking around the rest of the site, the “Field of Miracles”.
To be honest, going up the tower scared me a little, particularly on the downward-facing sides of the slope. I’m nervous with heights anyway, but it just had to be done.
Back on terra much firma, I read the history of the tower and decided that if I’d been around I’d have insisted that they excavate and insert heavy foundation stones at the first hint of instability. Then nobody would have been much interested in the perfectly normal bell tower in Pisa. It has been pointed out to me that the Titanic, from Belfast, was a bit like that too.
When I’d bought the ticket for the tower, I’d also purchased one for the museum, the Opera del Duomo, which my guidebook had said contains stuff worth seeing. Indeed it does, but the best part is the internal cloister, which is peaceful and gives you views of the tower which the majority of tourists never see.
As I walked back to my hotel, I remembered that I had forgotten to visist Pisa’s second most interesting architectural area, the Piazza del Cavalieri. When I went out for dinner, I made a detour to visit it, but was disappointed, since most of the square was fenced off and dug up in a new prettification scheme. It will be great when it is finished.
The previous night, while I had my cheap pizza, I’d noticed that the neighbouring expensive restaurant seemed to be thriving. I thought I’d splash out on my last night. When I sat down, they brought me a glass of champagne and a little dish of soup as an appetizer before I’d ordered anything. “This will cost me,” I thought.
In the end, it wasn’t actually all that expensive, but I was disappointed in the food, which was over-pretentious and under-cooked.
Saturday 9th June 2012
I checked out of the hotel and dragged my suitcase to the station. This time, I took a train to the airport, since there was one leaving in three minutes. Not that I was going to fly anywhere — I was collecting the rental car, a Ford Fiesta “or similar”. I was worried they’d give me a Lancia. The arrangement for car hires had changed since last time I’d used it, a number of years before. Now there was a shuttle bus to a separate block of offices. Quickly being processed, and choosing the offered Ford over the Fiat, I found my car (The keyfob said “silver”. That was silver as in “black”.) and was on my way by ten thirty.
One minor hitch was when I opened the case for my “driving” sunglasses and found that one of the miniscule screws had come out, allowing a lens to come loose and, I hoped, lose itself somewhere in the chaotically-packed suitcase (I’d unpacked on arrival, then repacked that morning). It didn’t occur to me to try to drive on one lens, but with my vision being boderline legal, in my home administration at least, I put on a pair of the normal, non-correcting sunglassses and made the best of it.
I took a break at a motorway services after a hundred kilometres, a third of the way; and then a longer break at Cortona at two thirds. At Cortona, there was an English wedding in prospect, with highly-dressed guests wandering the piazza.
I broke the final leg at the big supermarket at Piazza Umbria to buy a few supplies to get me started. Then it was across country under the control of the satnav, to find my home for the next two weeks.
When I arrived, the owners, Michelle and Lewis, made me very welcome, and invited me in for a drink and then dinner. Australians, they had planned to do me a barbie, but the evening was unusually cool and blustery, leading to that plan being postponed. A pot of pasta and ragu was fine though.