Hey....isn't that tower leaning a bit....?

Trip Start Jun 23, 2012
Trip End Jun 30, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Today we turned ourselves into classic tourists with a trip to Pisa to see the Torre Pendente, of which more later. First, however, whilst the younger members of the group variously slept or sat by the pool, Liz and I went on a little excursion to the Villa Torrigiani. The Villa was on of NINETEEN built for one family in the sixteenth century, and one which they used as their main summer residence. Interestingly, after the owner went bankrupt in the eighteenth century, the Villa Torrigiani has stayed in the same family since, and the current owners also use it in the summer (it has no central heating, so cannot be used in the winter.....although my guess is that most Brits would happily survive a winter there without noticing the lack of heating!)

Although theoretically only about half an hour away, the Villa was not that easy to find, and a frustrating lack of sign-posts didn't help. Anyway, eventually we turned a corner on a little country road, and there it was - one of those genuine "Wow" moments......a long avenue of cypresses leading up to the entrance, with the house nestling in the foothills just beyond.

Apart from a group of five retired Americans, we were the only other visitors - somewhat bizarrely we arrived at almost exactly the same time as them, and had to queue at the little entrance hut while they were served and asked various questions! We did our best to circuit the gardens in the opposite direction to them (not out of any antipathy to Americans per se, rather to avoid the strange scenario of the Villa's entire visitor complement going round in a bunch). At the entrance hut the little man (who Liz later told me was probably one of the owner's sons, judging from the family photos) told us to convene at he back of the house at 11.30 for a guided tour inside. This was perfect timing, as it gave us about 45 minutes in the beautiful gardens. These gardens include an area of elaberate underground water pipes which the original owner had installed to jet water at unsuspecting guests as they wandered around. Unfortunately frosts damaged the pipes about 30 years ago, although apparently some still work.

Inside the house, the seven of us (we were with the Americans by now) were provided with a mini-tour of the ground floor by a (fortunately) English-speaking guide. The owners were living on the first floor, so that was off-limits - as was the top floor which had been converted into a theatre in the eighteenth century, with plays being held in the open air overlooking the surrounding countryside - it must have been amazing.

After a simple lunch (including some left over Fagioli borlotti alla Toscana from the day before - in fact, there is still some left!), and a few quick swims, we hit the road at around 3.30 to head for Pisa. I had pre-booked our ascent of the Leaning Tower (for 5pm), and didn't want to be late. Almost immediately, however, we took a wrong turning and found ourselves in Lucca, in amongst the throng of the city's afternoon traffic! Blood pressures began to rise as the clock ticked past 4pm, but, despite some incredibly confusing signs, we eventially found the SN 12, which was the main road to Pisa. Miraculously, the Tower itself was reasonsably well sign-posted on entry into Pisa (in fact, at various intervals we caught sight of it). Even more useful was an excellent little car park close to the tower where we stopped. Seeing the Tower as you turned the corner of the entrance road to the "Campo dei Miracoli" was yet another "Wow" moment - the tower does lean rather impressively (we all thought we got good vlue for money in terms of the ratio of cost to angle of lean!).

There was a spot of last minute bother as we (a) collected the pre-booked tickets (actually, very straightforward), (b) located toilets (I was shouted at by the attendant as I didn't have the required 0.5 Euros!), and (c) negotiated the left luggage office, where all bags had to be deposited prior to climbing the Tower (liz got all the way to the front of the queue before being told she had to have her entrance ticket, which of course was with me, in the loo!).

Anyway, we were ready to start the climb at 5pm, albeit slightly nervous, as the Rough Guide warned that it was "not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic". As soon as you get into the base of the tower you are struck by the "tilt", and the first 20 or so steps are rather disorientating. However, you soon get used to the way the steps on one side have a steeper feel to them, whilst on the other side you almost feel as if you are going downhill at the same time as you're climbing!

The tower itself is beautiful, and the ascent lets you stop at three different levels. The second is actually at the bell chamber just below the top, where you make your way gingerly round a set of external steps (there's a fence in case you fall!), and then up a final VERY narrow stairway to the summit, with spectacular views over the city, and in particular the Cathedral next door.

After descending to ground level we recovered ourselves in a nearby cafe, before popping into the rather impressive Cathedral. We then returned to the car with the objective of driving into the centre of Pisa for a meal. This was possibly a mistake! Although we found a parking spot very easily (in the beautiful Piazza dei Cavallieri), we were later to discover that most of the centre of the city was effectively shut off for private car users, and the place we'd parked was for residents or disabled drivers only. As we left (after our meal), I was stopped by an official of some description - I groaned inwardly, but infact he was simply pointing out that the only escape was via the one-way road we'd entered by. He did tell me to expect a large fine, though, and Liz then spotted cameras set up at the entrance to the square! Luckily, having hire cars with Italian plates, we were able to drive the wrong way down the one-way road without observers immediately thinking "stupid English", although we did have to do a little manoeuvring when we mat a car coming the other way!

Having said all that, the centre of Pisa was great - loads on tiny alley ways and little squares, and the impressive River Arno. We had an ice-cream each from a Gelateria by the river, and joined the evening buzz as everyone came out to enjoy the (relative) cool of the evening.
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J&R on

Glad your holiday continues to be interesting and educational. John remembers the leaning tower - he was too scared to climb it and watched his wife and three daughters ascend without any fear whatsoever. Happy days.

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