Pisa and Florence…
How many days does it take to cover Rome? Probably a week, probably more, but definitely not the 2–1/2 days we were there. Then again, our objective was never covering as many places as possible in the little time that we had. We were going to leave Rome wanting to come back, to experience it yet again, with lots more of its sights to be explored.
Being the paranoid type, we were ready to leave around 8:30 a.m. to catch a train that was going to start at 11:15 a.m. We said our goodbyes to Maria, took photos with her and invited her to our place in Bangalore if she were to ever visit India, but not before seeking her help in hailing a cab to take us to Roma Termini (railway station). We experienced some of the traffic, but we still found ourselves at the station by a 9:15 a.m. This time, though, the paranoia helped. Reaching early, we gave ourselves ample time to get answers to whether our printed online tickets would be acceptable on the train. In Rome, for a first timer, I always would suggest reaching early to get one’s bearings right.
After we had sorted the tickets, and quickly finishing our breakfast, we had some difficulty in understanding the platform where the train would come. Once we had figured out the right platform, we realised we had to scan our tickets before we got into the train. Finally, we were inside the train just 5 minutes before it departed. I informed our hostess in Florence about our arrival time there, but she told us not to completely trust the Italian train timings. I guess she was surprised with how calmly I took the news. Evidently, she does not know much about Indian Railways.
The train touched 250 km/h at its fastest and we reached Florence, around 280 kms away from Rome, in an hour and 15 minutes. Coming out of Firenze SMN, we took a taxi to where we were going to stay. While our hostess, Seda, was away (she is learning interior designing), her friend, Tamay, was there to welcome us. She was quite a bubbly, warm character and seemed to instantly connect with Ranji, because by the time I went to wash my face and came out, Ranji was already prescribing Tiger Balm and Saridon for her headache!
Our place of stay in Florence was rustic and had an old-world charm to it. In addition to that, it also had a birreria right outside, with the bus stand right beside it. We caught a bus back to the railway station as we wanted to head out to Pisa. Before that, we went to a KFC there for a quick lunch where I managed to grab everyone’s attention by dropping a full glass of Pepsi, spilling the contents all over the floor.
Back at Firenze SMN, at the ticket kiosk, we were trying to figure out how to buy a ticket when a girl came over to us and offered to help which we declined. She acted as if she didn’t notice what we said and proceeded to click a couple of buttons and then turned around asked for €1. Yet another person who didn’t know much about Indians, I thought, even as we expertly evaded her. There was yet another person we had to similarly avoid before we boarded our double-decker train to Pisa.
Pisa is about an hour from Florence, roughly 80 kms, and seemed a very sleepy town. Once we crossed the Pisa Central station, we hardly found people until we neared the Leaning Tower. In fact, the last 500 metres or so to the Leaning Tower is through an alley that is filled with eating out places, and we decided we were going to have our dinner on our way back from one of those.
I never knew that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was a freestanding bell tower of the Pisa Cathedral. The Cathedral, with its baptistery in front and the bell tower at its back, is situated in Pisa’s Cathedral Square. The place was teeming with tourists, most of them with their hands stretched out, as they posed for photographs that would make them look like supporting the Leaning Tower. While I am sure those photos were great, it was quite hilarious to see hundreds of people leaning all around the large piazza with their arms outstretched.
If you are okay to have pasta or pizza, food would not be a problem for the Indian traveller. While they do not use spices the way we would, the food isn’t what I would call bland. Even someone like Ranji, who needs an overload of spices, enjoyed the local Italian fare. Another must have is the house wine served by each of these places. There wasn’t a single place which disappointed me with their house wine. After all, this was Tuscany, the land of Chianti!
It was rather late by the time we reached back to Florence, but we found that Tamay was still at the room while Seda had once again gone out. Tamay was going on some cycling tour to Bologna the next day, so we bade her goodbye. We ourselves had an early start the next day, so we hit the bed soon after Tamay left.
Florence is a very small town and can be covered by walking. With the help of our ever-reliable friend, Google Maps, we found ourselves at Galleria dell’Accademia minutes before they were going to open. The pre-booked tickets once again helped as we had a much smaller queue to deal with.
While the Accademia holds the works of many different artists, people visit the place mainly for one — Michelangelo’s David! We were no different, until we reached the corridor leading to where David stood. This place had Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves, sculptures that were set to adorn the ambitious tomb of Pope Julius II. All of them felt so alive, about to break out from the stone they were being carved from. These also seemed to uphold Michelangelo’s belief that the forms were already there in the rocks and his job was only to chisel away the rest of it.
Despite the attraction of these works of Michelangelo, we were being inexorably pulled towards the beauty that David is. How I wish I was good with words so that I could describe all that we felt while in the presence of what was known as ‘The Giant.’ To think that Michelangelo carved this masterpiece from a block of marble that had been abandoned by multiple sculptors close to 40 years makes it even more remarkable. Standing beside the statue, we poured through the pages in The Agony and the Ecstasy which detailed the sculpting of David. We marvelled at how blood almost seemed to be coursing through those veins in his forearms. It was awhile before we managed to move on from there.
The problem of seeing David is that the rest of the gallery seems a bit of a letdown. This could be my Michelangelo hero-worship speaking, but we definitely felt that way. We did see the rest of the gallery, though, before we stepped out and went towards Uffizi. On our way, we managed to quickly have our breakfast as well.
On our way to Uffizi, my phone switched off for some reason, and when I switched it back on it asked me for a PIN. Since I did not remember it and since Ranji was not carrying the SIM card pack in her bag, using the phone for navigation was ruled out. This made reaching Uffizi tricky, but the smallness of Florence helped. There was a moment of hilarity when we wondered where Uffizi was, standing right beside its entrance.
Uffizi, where the Florentine government offices were during the Medici times, houses paintings and sculpture. The gallery was damaged in 1993 during a mafia bombing but has now undergone extensive repairs. It houses paintings by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli, among others. Uffizi also has the famous Vasari corridor, connecting the gallery to Palazzo Vecchio.
After Uffizi, we crossed the Ponte Vecchio to reach the Soderini side of the town. Ponte Vecchio is a pedestrian bridge across River Arno which has shops lining on either side of it. Outside of the galleries, it is also the most touristy of places in Florence, and we decided never again to use the Ponte Vecchio.
We finally met our hostess, Seda, when we got back to the room. She was bubbly and energetic and started off as if we had known her for a long time. We had thought of taking rest before going out late in the evening but that really didn’t materialise as we chatted with her. Finally, around 7 p.m. we once again went to the city centre to experience Florence at night.
The piazzas had some good street musicians performing while people generally moved about. We walked through the cobbled streets, located the spot where Savonarola was condemned, hung and burned and found the celebrated graffiti, L’importuno, allegedly done by Michelangelo on one of the bricks of Palazzo Vecchio. We rounded up the day having dinner and tasting the locally brewed fare from the birreria just below our apartment.