Tuesday 8th February 2022
We interrupt our narrowboat adventure to travel to Italy to watch a Six Nations rugby match. We have talked about going for a long time and the trip was originally booked pre-Covid. Robert maintains this is a birthday present for Matilda as the Italy vs England match usually takes place around her birthday weekend on alternate years. On this basis she insisted our girls should come too [presence not presents] and they will be joining us when their work commitments permit, at the weekend.
Travelling via London City Airport is very civilised. Toiletries do not need to be in a plastic bag and liquids and technology can all be packed in your luggage and left in there. Even though Robert and Matilda each set off security scanners and Robert had to take off both his belt and his shoes we were still through very quickly. Nothing incriminating was found but Matilda has resolved not to wear her button fly Levi’s through airport security in future.
Clear skies gave us a good view of the snow-capped Alps as we flew over.
We landed in Florence and caught the tram for a very reasonable €1.5 each from right outside the airport to the main station. It took about 20 minutes and we were then able to catch a train to Pisa. We were fortunately allowed to board an earlier train than the one we had booked. It is mandatory to wear an FPP2 compliant face mask on public transport and face masks are still required at all times in the street. We have both found these masks to be sweatier than the ones commonly in use in the UK and we assume this therefore means they are potentially more effective. We will be pleased when we no longer have to wear them in the street as the rules are due to change on Friday 11th February 2022 while we are still here although they will still be compulsory on public transport.
Our hotel is directly opposite the station so it was a simple matter to deposit our luggage. We then walked out to see the city, over the River Arno and on . …
. . . past the imposing Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa [part of the university, below] in the Piazza dei Cavalieri. This square has no road markings but is not actually pedestrianised. From time to time vehicles drive in and Matilda, who struggles with left and right even in her own country and doesn’t know which way to look abroad, is thrown into a panic, unable to predict which way the vehicle might turn to take evasive action.
From here we went on to the Piazza dei Miracoli for the truly miraculous sight of this walled and grassy square encompassing the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Campanile [or bell tower, more commonly known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa] and the Camposanto. We were rewarded by the sight of the evening sun bathing the Tower in golden light.
We planned to return in the morning to climb the Tower and visit the Baptistry and Duomo.
Having identified three brew pubs in Pisa, as we took a break in the Jamm Bell Café, Robert decided we should sample them all at some point. He was particularly impressed with the milk stout called Black Bear at the L’Orzo Bruno bar which, like two of his favourite watering holes – the Delirium Village in Brussels and The Ship and Shovell by Charing Cross Station – spans two sides of the road. It is decorated with sporting memorabilia and has the muted TV tuned to the sports channel.
However, despite the milk stout being to Robert’s liking, the doors were kept wide open for air flow and there was no heating so the temperature was not acceptable to Matilda. Fortunately all three bars are very close together. A one minute walk took us to Scaccomalto where the barman spoke impeccable American English and the porter and wheat beer both proved to be very palatable. Interestingly this proved to be popular with a young predominantly female clientele. Robert was also impressed by the typography on the building.
The Enobirreria L’Etrusco seemed to be the most popular of the three but this might have been because we went there last and it was later in the evening. The wheat beer here also met with approval.
Wednesday 9th February 2022 – Celebrating National Pizza Day in Pisa
After a welcome lie-in, we set off to “do the sights” and found that Keith Haring’s “Tuttomondo” was very close to our hotel. This mural was created by the American artist in 1989 and is located on the rear wall of the Sant’ Antonio Abate church. Banners around the town declare that he is back, but we could not understand how given that this is one of the last public murals completed before his death in 1990. We then realised that an exhibition had been mounted in one of the city’s galleries.
Pisa’s city walls have been restored recently and were opened to the public on 18 May 2018. The open section is three kilometers long and 10 meters high and we were looking forward to walking the walls and seeing the city from a different perspective. However, when we reached the Wooden Tower [below], one of the four entry points, we found that the walls are only open at the weekends in the winter months.
This is therefore something to save for another visit.
From here we returned to the Piazza dei Miracoli to buy a ticket to climb the Campanile. At this time of year there were no queues and we were able to choose when we wanted to ascend. This allowed time for a coffee with views of the square and a comfort break.
One side of the tower [185 feet 11 inches from the ground] is over two foot higher than the other [183 feet 3 inches]. You can certainly feel the difference in the camber as you climb round and up the spiral staircase and it is rather disconcerting as it changes. Further up the rise on the steps reduces and the climb gets easier.
The views, of course, are fabulous.
The tower began to lean before it was even finished due to the soft ground but this has also prevented the seismic activity over the years from creating resonance in the tower thereby saving it from collapsing during various earthquakes. Nevertheless, the tilt is unnerving and despite the railings it doesn’t feel entirely safe.
So Matilda sat down and stayed back to take in the views.
We heard the bells ring as we were having coffee but when you get to the top, they do not seem very securely mounted.
Having descended we went to view the cathedral: the wooden coffered ceiling is particularly impressive.
Whilst outside the alternating black and white decoration is evidence of Arab influence in its construction.
Facing the Duomo is the Baptistery which is the largest such building in Italy and was the second building in the complex. It was started in 1152 and [almost] finished in 1363. The domed roof is incomplete: half is covered in orange tiles, whilst the other half remains bare and has never been finished.
Inside, the octagonal font is vast and would allow the complete immersion of those being baptised at a time when adult baptism was common.
The cloisters of the Camposanto can be seen from the top of the Campanile. It was founded in 1277 to accommodate the graves that until then were to be found all around the Cathedral. Archbishop Federico Visconti succeeded in his wish to create a “large and dignified, secluded and enclosed place” for the devotion of the dead.
Next, we went in search of the Iglesia de Santa Maria della Spina, marked as number five on the map provided by the hotel. On our way we passed a pretty little church by the river. The sign outside this building said that this church had changed its name in 1333 following the donation of a thorn from Christ’s Crown. So although not at the place denoted by number five we had found the Iglesia de Santa Maria della Spina. Unfortunately it wasn’t open but apparently boasts 14th century carvings. Originally built near the river it was moved between 1871 to 1875 to a safer place although as it is still on the banks of the river it is hard to imagine how much closer it could have been.
The Banks of the River Arno seem to represent a bit of a missed opportunity. There are no riverside bars or boats to be seen at this time of year.
Having walked nearly nine miles we decided to reward ourselves with a chilled drink. Robert is proud that he has learnt two words of Italian “alla spina” which means “draught” or “on tap”. He ordered a draught beer whilst Matilda went for what she thought was the safer option of a bottle of Moretti. The drinks seemed to take quite a long time to come and when they did Matilda was served a cocktail featuring mint leaves, ice and sugar: possibly a mojito. As it had taken a while to come the barman had obviously made it with love and she didn’t like to send it back. When the bill came we thought we might discover what it was, but it was itemised only as a cocktail “pestato” which translates as “muddled” as the style of mixing the drink. Muddled indeed.
Later, a couple from London on the table next to us informed us that February 9th is National Pizza Day so we asked the barmaid for a recommendation. Matilda was amused when the barmaid understood the words “National Day of” but failed to recognise Robert’s pronunciation of pizza. We obviously had to indulge – see Dish of the Day.