The Leaning Tower and the Tower of the Eater

Trip Start Jan 06, 2011
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hostel Pisa

Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Friday, January 21, 2011

This past weekend I got my first experience in independent travel in Italy. Four friends and I took the train to Pisa last Friday and then Siena on Saturday.  We woke up early and met at my friends' apartment at 8:30 to walk to the mini metro here and take it to the train station. 

The mini metro here is really adorable, and it actually reminds me of a mild theme park ride.  There is one small car with eight seats that fold down from the walls and room for standing.  The cars follow a track up and down the hills of Perugia and partially underground.  There are six stops throughout the center and periphery of Perugia and a new car comes every five minutes or less.  To ride the mini metro, you purchase a ticket at any of the little convenience stores (tabacchi) or magazine stands for 1.50 euros.  This ticket gets you 70 minutes of time on the mini metro from the time you board to ride the mini metro.  So for instance, you have to ride the seven minutes or so, do your shopping at the big grocery store outside the city, and ride back within that amount of time, or you must pay for two rides.  You can also purchase a pass for ten rides for 12 euros, which makes each ride slightly cheaper.  These tickets work for the local city bus system as well.

The train station is located right next to the big grocery store, so we rode there and purchased the 10:00 tickets to Pisa.  Then we had to wait for about an hour—we had planned for extra time in case the train station was confusing or the wait was long, but everything was very straightforward and took 15 minutes or so.  I think from now on we’ll probably plan to get to the station around 20 to 25 minutes early, or at least until tourist season.

One of the strange things about riding trains in Italy, at least for me, was that you have to validate your train ticket at this yellow box before boarding.  It’s an easy process, just stick your ticket in the slot, but if you forget you can get fined something like 150 euros.  And they do check periodically to make sure that you’ve validated.  This system is in place because when you buy tickets they’re good for a couple months, and you can use them whenever during those dates, but only for six hours or so after validation—enough to get where you’re going.  Validation also prevents people from taking illegal rides on trains, which would be easy to do, since no one checks your ticket when you board the train.

We arrived in Pisa around 1:30 after a change in Florence.  First, we found our hostel, Hostel Pisa, which wasn’t too difficult, since it was only a five-minute walk from the train station.  We got a room for six people with a private bathroom for just 10 euros per person, or around $13, put our bookbags in the lockers before heading out to explore.  We made our way through the city, surprised at how flat the city was and to see sand in some places—Pisa is fairly near the coast so it’s not nearly as mountainous as landlocked Perugia.  After a 25-minute walk, we found Piazza dei Miracoli, the square where Pisa’s Cathedral, the Baptistery, and of course Torre Pendente (the Leaning Tower) are located.  We took lots of fun Leaning Tower pictures and then we went inside the Cathedral.  (According to my guidebook, the Torre Pendente actually leans because the city is only two meters above sea level and the soil is a sand and clay mixture, which is not good for keeping buildings stable.  A lot of other monuments in Pisa actually lean too, such as the Cathedral and Baptistery, but the tower is the most noticeable because it's small circumference.)  Pisa's Cathedral was absolutely gorgeous, both inside and outside.

After we finished exploring Piazza dei Miracoli, the sun was already starting to go down—it gets dark between 4:30 and 4:45 here.  We headed back toward the city center and found an awesome café with some of the best gelato I’ve had in Italy.  Gelato is much better than ice cream, in my opinion.  You can get the piccolo, or small, size here in Perugia for 2 euros, although the price differs from place to place, and you get to choose two flavors.  In Pisa, I had strawberry and coconut gelato, but I also like the chocolate and lemon flavors a lot. 

After the café, we wandered back into the city center, passing through the University of Pisa, which is very prestigious within Italy, especially for the humanities.  Then we explored some of the shops before having dinner in a local restaurant.  The restaurants here tend to be fairly pricey compared to what we’re used to at home, and any sit-down place has a menu with appetizers and choices for a three-course meal, along with sides and desserts.  Each course can range from 5 or 6 euros to more than 15 euros.  Luckily, no one gets offended if you skip a course, so your best option is to skip straight to the second course if you’re hungry but want to eat economically.  I had a Tuscan soup with a lot of greens and root vegetables, and also some chicken with potatoes, while my friends got dishes like lasagna and ravioli.  Dinner in Italy doesn’t usually happen till around 8:00 in the evening, which is very unusual for me, since I’m used to eating at 7:00 or so at the very latest.  However, Italians often have a late lunch and take siestas, closing down their shops for a few hours in the afternoon for what is known as pausa.  The late dinner makes a lot more sense in that context.

After dinner, we were exhausted, so we headed back to our hostel, stopping in for hot chocolate along the way.  Hot chocolate is one of my favorite foods in Italy—it’s kind of a pudding texture, but nice and warm.  Some places even serve white chocolate or chocolate mixed with things like strawberries and bananas.  You can get it for around 3 or 3.50 euros, depending on the shop.

The next morning, we woke up very early at 6:30 to get ready and take the 8:00 train from Pisa to Siena.  We arrived in Siena around 10:00 after one change.  The train station in Siena is pretty far from the city center.  Siena does have local city buses that run from the station to the center, but we chose to walk instead about a mile and a half or a little more up the mountain roads.  Many cities here are built up on hills because when they were founded, it provided them with military protection—it’s easy to see the enemy approaching, and who would want to hike all the way up there to take the city anyway?  Siena was extremely easy to navigate once we entered the old city gates, since there are signs everywhere pointing you toward all the main attractions.  We made our way toward Piazza del Campo, the central square in Siena.  Siena has a great tradition where twice a year, they have horse races called Il Palio around Piazza del Campo.  The hotels all around the square book months or even years in advance for the event.  There’s also a really pretty fountain (Fonte Gaia) and an awesome bell tower (Torre del Mangia) attached to the town hall (Palazzo Comunale).  One of my friends and I paid 8 euros to climb Torre del Mangia for the best possible view of Siena and the Tuscan countryside.  After climbing back down the narrow, winding stairs, we all ate lunch in a restaurant in Piazza del Campo.  I had a really delicious mushroom pizza, while other people had prosciutto (the Italian version of ham but better) pizza and calzones.

After lunch, we walked up to the Piazza del Duomo where we found Siena’s Cathedral, a grand gothic-style building that was never fully completed.  We bought combination tickets that allowed us to visit the Museo dell’Opera, Cathedral, Baptistery, and the Crypt.  The museum was really great because it had a lot of wonderful artwork, including a painting by Cimabue that I recognized from my art history class at PC!  There was also a large collection of relics with human skulls and other body parts, supposedly once pieces of saints, and another room full of old books going back as far as the 14th century.  After the museum, we explored the Cathedral, which was very nice but not as good as Pisa’s, in my opinion.  The Cathedral also had a collection of ancient books on display in one of the side rooms, which I really enjoyed.  Then we went into the Crypt, which was the most disappointing thing about the trip.  The walls had been frescoed originally, but they were in bad condition, and all the displays were under construction.  We left about five minutes later and went into the Baptistery behind the Cathedral, which was really interesting and had lots of great artwork.

After finishing with the monuments, we made our way back to the train station and bought tickets back to Perugia.  One weird thing is that to get to Pisa from Perugia is only around three and a half hours, even with a connection in Florence, but Siena, which is halfway in between Perugia and Pisa, is close to four hours from Perugia by train, since there are two changes with long layovers.  If I had to do it again, I would probably try to take the bus since it’s quicker and direct and only a couple more euros.  We got back to Perugia around 8:00, exhausted from walking around in the cold for two days (the highest it got that day in Siena was 38 or so) but very satisfied with our trip.

Getting to leave Perugia made me notice and appreciate a couple things about my home city in Italy.  I realized that I love the medieval architecture of Perugia’s city center, which in my opinion is much nicer to look at everyday than Siena’s cold, gothic buildings (even if Perugia does have one of the ugliest cathedrals in all of Italy).  Also, another thing that I really like about Perugia is that it is much easier to practice Italian with the people here than Florence or Siena or Pisa.  Whenever I try to communicate with people in these places with my broken Italian, often people simply reply in perfect English.  Of course, they’re trying to be polite, since they can tell that English is an easier way for me to communicate.  But I’m really glad that I’m forced to use Italian here on a daily basis.  Without that kind of environment, I’m sure I wouldn’t learn any Italian—it’s too easy to switch over to English rather than trying to translate my thoughts into Italian

I’m pleased at how my Italian is improving too.  Just a week or two ago, I would go into shops and do a lot of stuttering and pointing and staring blankly occasionally throw out a couple Italian words that didn’t make any sense.  But now I’m able to understand the shopkeepers or the people in the restaurants much better, and I can respond in very simple sentences or ask very simple questions.

As for classes, it’s been hard to adjust to sitting in a room for an hour and half rather than 50 minutes and also having class till 5:00 p.m. on some days.  Still, I feel like I have plenty of time to explore the city during my breaks and my classes are interesting.  I ended up switching out of Medieval Culture to a course on the History and Culture of Food in Italy, and we had an olive oil tasting yesterday.  I’m also enjoying learning about Italy’s crazy soap opera of a political system and Italian is starting to be a lot less frustrating as I understand more and more of the language.  I’m excited that a week from Friday, my Contemporary Global Issues class takes a day trip to Assisi to see where Saint Francis lived.  Also, this weekend in Perugia is a festival for one of their patron saints, so I’m sure that will bring a lot of exciting events.
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lacynoel on

Great Blog! It's great to hear about the places that I keep hearing about in art history this semester! So neat!

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