Published: February 22nd 2010February 3rd 2010
The night just outside of Bologna was bitterly cold, even for a couple of hardened travellers like ourselves, and the next morning was a nice winding drive through some very snowy areas on our way southwest to Lucca. Aleks was driving (even though she's not supposed to) and this was her trial-by-fire introduction to snowy road driving. As always, she came through without a scratch, and we continued at a medium pace. Running alongside the road at one stage was a river with water so blue it was almost luminescent: we tried to get a photo, you'll know which one it is, but it may or may not do it justice. You'll have to be the judge.
Lucca came highly recommended by Kate “Dean's List” Epstein of Surrey Hills/Redfern fame. If she thinks it's good, it's gotta be good, and it was. The old town area of Lucca is surrounded by fortified walls that look rather squat from a distance, but are actually about 12m high.. they're just really REALLY wide. I'd hate to be the person who's being told to break into the place in medieval times. And by the look of the place when we got there, noone's
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
tried to do that for a really long time. The place was totally dead, and I don't mean the average age group. As we wandered through the streets, we started to get the idea that no one actually lives in Italy. There are a whole bunch of houses and stuff, restaurants, newsagents etc. But every time we get there it's like a ghost town.
There is actually a very good reason for this. After we finally drag ourselves out of bed in the morning and get going, drive the distance we need to drive for the day at snails pace, we arrive at destination somewhere between 1 and 5pm. It has come to our attention that Italy, as a country, is closed at that stage. As everyone lives with their parents till the age of 87, it's very important to get home to Mama and Papa and get your daily lunch of penne al'arrabiata. Bugger your business, this is mama's food, man!
And so we were left wandering around with just ourselves and a few local cats for company, and this wasn't so bad. It was a bit hazy/rainy/overcast, but we still got the feeling that Lucca, especially
Aleks' Snow Driving Test: Passed
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
in summer when it's at it's best, is a place you can easily spend a few days in, just absorbing. The locals are really friendly, and when we finally found a place where we could sample a little more of the local grub, we grabbed a large pasta and a full sized pizza with a ½ litre of prosecco to wash it down for just over €20. It was really great, and a good sized meal as opposed to the small servings in Bologna. Aleks still had two pieces of pizza left and looked at me mournfully as she usually does when she's full. I was happy to oblige, even though I was also stuffed. You just can't let good Italian food go to waste.
There was a beautiful central piazza that was round and modelled around a Roman amphitheatre, and looks like the kind of place that everyone would sit in the outdoor cafes, drink coffees and dodge pigeons in the summertime. Apart from that and the cathedral, and an old tower with a tree growing out of the top of it, that was about it in Lucca, it's a pretty place but there's not a lot to
Nope, Still Lost
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
I feel like I'm repeating myself a lot in these blogs.
We drove on to Pisa which was just down the road, and found some parking in the centre. We could see the famous leaning tower from miles away, and so it wasn't hard to navigate to. We found cheap parking just next to the square, and moved on in. Pisa is the kind of place that you visit only for it's main attraction. Sure the town on the whole was pretty, but very similar to a lot of what we'd already seen. The square that the Tower sits in is just beautiful: probably four or five football fields worth of green grass topped with white marble structures, three of them to be precise. The tower itself, the cattedrale, and the battistero, all immense and contrasting to the simple mown lawns surrounding them.
The tower is really on quite a lean, but was been adjusted in 1990 when it reached a critical tilting point of about 5.5m off centre at the top. It's in surprisingly good nick but is constantly under surveillance and restoration by professor-type people; the lean tends to accelerate the degradation of various
Luminescent Blue Water
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
surfaces due to the unusual pressures on the structure. I'll be blunt and just say I can't believe the bloody thing hasn't fallen over.
After we were done with Pisa, taking the obligatory “supporting the tower” perspective shots along with a hundred other punters, we moved out toward Florence. We had an interesting dinner that night of pre-made but fresh ravioli funghi bought from the local Ipercoop supermarket. They were EXCELLENT, and for the low low price of about €1.80 for two packs. It proves that it is actually possible to get decent food at a great price from the fishy-smelling supermarkets in Italy. No really, every one of them stinks like fish.
30th January. Up at 8am. Hit the ground running in Firenze (Florence's Italian name) and straight to the world famous Duomo (cathedral). I'll put it right out there and just say that there is only other Cathedral in the world that can match the Florence Duomo for “Holy SHIT, look at that!” factor, and that's the Segrada Familia in Barcelona. And that's really saying something. It's just phenomenal. Not only is it just massive, it's black and white and red and mixed up like crazy.
This Bridge Is Famous, Apparently
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
That, and like the Lonely Planet says, it's completely impossible to capture in photos. It doesn't matter what colour settings you have on the camera or which perspective you take them from, it just doesn't work. I did my best, but it ain't that good.
And so from the outside you expect one of the greatest interiors in the world inside. And that's couldn't be further from the case. The inside is, simply put, boring. Boring as bat shit. Nice floor, I'll give it that, but the rest of it is grey and lifeless. I was in there for about five seconds before walking out slightly disappointed. I suppose you can't really have everything can you, and I've become a bit interior spoilt in my travels.
Moving on though, we then went to possibly the most famous place in Florence that people have never heard of, the Galleria dell Academia. Ring a bell? Nope, thought not, but the Galleria's most famous piece might. Can you guess what it is? The most incredible sculpture ever carved in the history of mankind. Big call, but that's exactly what Michaelangelo's David really is. Like most of the people who pay the
The View From The Bridge
En route to Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
extortionate entry fee (€12 from memory), we went to look at some of the other exhibitions to get our money's worth, but were a bit anxious to see the man himself. We made our way through the various galleries filled with ancient musical instruments, paintings, dioramas, sculptures and the like, until we walked into a long hallway to see him standing there in the end of the room.
As you slowly walk up, already mesmerised, you become vaguely aware of the number of people just standing and staring at this giant block of marble. I don't need to give you all the specifications and trivia about the piece, because they're meaningless. To see the most perfect piece of art ever created with your own eyes is enough to floor you. There are seats all around the statue where people can just sit and look at it's perfection. Everything about it is perfect down to the most incredible detail - the veins in the back of his hands, the shape of his adam's apple, the parts behind his knees. We stood there for about 15 minutes and tried to get some good pictures covertly as you're not allowed to take
shots of him. A few people tried to get some, but were subsequently yelled at by undercover museum attendants. We did it, so check them out. I might as well have drawn a stick figure pencil drawing of him though, it conveys about as much as a photo.
It's like standing in the presence of a God, and we were both dumbfounded by the effect it had on us. It's one of the best things I've seen on this trip. I was so dumbfounded in fact, that I decided it might be a good idea to leave my backpack in the scanner at security. Yep, that's our Nemo, three second memory at the best of times. Happily, security didn't think it was a bomb and returned it to me with a laugh and a smile.
We had some pizza and beers for lunch (€10 for both of us) we moved off to the Basilica de Santa Croce, which Aleks decided to wait outside for. Yep, I'm still doing the churchy thing, but this time it paid off. As I walked in and checked out the floor plan, I noticed three names on the list of buried there that
immediately made my jaw drop. Michaelangelo Buonarotti, Galileo Galilei, and Niccolo Macchiavelli. Holy crap. I nearly ran through the place, the vibram soles ons my trekking boots making the most horrible squeaking noise on the time-polished marble floor. Bloody tourists. And sure enough there they were. Of course Galileo and Michaelangelo's graves are pretty ornamental and all, and I couldn't believe that I was standing in there. There was also an epitaph dedicated to Dante Aligheri, but he's not buried there, he's up north near Venice in Ravenna. Macchiavelli you may have heard of: he's the writer of “The Prince” and “The Art Of War”, two of Italy's most famous literary pieces, though his tomb is blink-and-you'll-miss-it modest. There was also a carving by Donatello, and a hole in the wall dedicated to Florence Nightingale... her ashes maybe? I'm still not sure, though her dates of life were written on there. I'll have to check up on that one.
The rest of Florence consisted of the Medician Gold Shops along Ponte Vecchio (originally butchers shops, but the Medici family demanded a more attractive trade lane back in the day), watching rowers on the river, getting amongst the people and
getting a feel for the place. The day drew to a close and we had covered quite a fair bit of ground, and we felt well and truly satisfied that Florence was just as beautiful as everyone had been talking about for so long.
The 31st was Babcia's Birthday as I recall, so we rang her and sang Sto Lat the next morning. Happy Birthday Babcia! We drove from just outside Florence to San Gimignano. It's the type of town-on-the-hill kind of place that we would see increasingly popular in the Tuscany, Umbria and Abbruzzo regions later in our travels, and after parking we walked into the town and Aleks was immediately happy. Right from the outset, it was a perfect example of how simple yet beautiful a place could be. And after the pomp and style of Venice, we were really taken aback at the small terracotta church, the boys playing soccer in the square underneath washing hung on balconies in the sunshine, and the first time we'd see the few people around strolling with no place to go, nothing to do, just wandering aimlessly in the sunshine. Beautiful.
From our first entry into the town we
walked up one of the main roads to a set of markets that was far more populated. That's where the rest of the population was, obviously, and the stalls had everything from huge buckets of nuts and spices, clothing, fresh vegies, and also one giant fold out semitrailer full of pets! Baby turtles swimming in a fish tank, all kinds of birds, puppies, hamsters, rabbits, they were all there. The atmosphere amongst the tall towers around the square that the town is so famous for, was just buzzing. Once done with the markets, we decided to walk out around the laneways lining the exterior of the village to see some incredible views out over the surrounding valleys. Like most of the places in the area, San Jimjams (as we decided to call it) is built on a rise for fortification purposes in times past, and so now the places benefit from beautiful views. We took a pile of photos and basked in the sunshine. It was still cold, especially in the shade, but the sun was very warm. It was similar to a winter's morning in Gunnedah and the air was so clean it was almost alpine.
couple of hours we moved on out of San Jimjams and drove down the back roads towards Siena. As we beetled along in the car we saw an incredible hilltop walled town, and Aleks got very excited, so I chucked on the handbrake and took a smoking-tyre left up the road toward Monteriggioni. Parking in a carpark down the hill, we wandered up the track into the little town, and marvelled at the size of the fortifications surrounding what was essentially a tiny little village. So tiny that it took 20 minutes to walk around the whole thing entirely! Once again it was a case of nothing specific to see, but a lot to see as a whole. There were about three people there, and so after a few quick photos we bolted.
We finally arrived at Siena at a leisurely pace, and made for the town square. When I say square though, I actually mean circle. Like Lucca, the central meeting place of Siena is like one huge velodrome... a giant ring of buildings bordered on one side by a town hall with a 95m tower, and then a big flat bricked arcade in the middle. The whole
town seemed to be just sitting on the steps and in the cafes, drinking coffee and laying in the sunshine. Unlike the other towns, there were quite a few people about, but the ambience was just fantastic. There was confetti all over the ground, as was the case with nearly everywhere we'd been in Italy so far, but I'm not sure why... Something to do with Carnivale I think?
We tried (in vain) to get some photos of the square, before moving off to the Duomo, which was absolutely beautiful from the outside, similar in architecture to the one in Florence, but obviously not a patch on it in terms of grandeur. We didn't go inside as we kinda guessed it would be a similar “pretty outside/boring inside” deal, and instead went for more of a walk around with our tourist map. We also jumped at the opportunity to have pizza for lunch, and stuffed our faces before finding an internet cafe to check our emails and book some stuff. McDonald's was being generally shit in terms of no powerpoints and WiFi not working, so we had to pay. Life's hard sometimes.
That night we realised we had
nowhere to stay, as there wasn't a truck stop or anything within a bull's roar of where we were, and so by chance after finding a campsite closed near Siena, we saw a sign for another one 20km south, gave them a call, and moved on down. We arrived rather late to meet an older lady called Giovanna and her little hairy daschund called Bert. Bert was a fierce guard dog, and after barking (with tail going like mad) on the way in, he peed on the van and was content that we were okay. Giovanna was such a wonderful lady, spoke English and everything, and was very informative and helpful. The stay cost us €20 for the night, and we moved the camper near a power box and a light and set up camp. In the process I decided to step in a present that I can only hope/assume Bert had left for me, and not another camper. A good point about the site was that it had winter bathrooms all lovely and heated, they looked just like someone's bathroom in a house, and had laundry facilities and places to do the washing up so that was great. We
had hot showers and scrubbed down, and chucked a load of laundry on. The place also (ironically) had WiFi, but only near the main reception, so it was a bit iffy down where we were parked but still manageable. The night was fecking FREEZING.
Having being on the go for quite some time, I decided that instead of flogging ourselves to bits we should stay another day. Aleks staunchly opposed this idea, but I put my puppy-pooped boot down and said “NO! WE STAY!” After much grumbling Aleks agreed, and on the morning of the first of February she walked off into town to find some food. This was just about as happy as Aleks can be, strolling through the Tuscan countryside to a small terracotta coloured village and buying fresh produce alongside the locals. People write books about that kind of thing. All she was missing was her little wicker basket with a white and red checkered cloth inside. I stayed back and put my fingers to work and got blogging. We had a lovely lunch of fresh salad made by the best cook in the world, and Aleks had a long shower and dyed her hair that
afternoon while I blogged and stuffed around on the laptop. We managed to get a 1L bottle of Chianti for €7 and some lovely Lambrusco, so we made short work of that.
If you're wondering why these blogs are so late at the moment, it may have something to do with the events of that night. After writing nearly 5000 words, I closed the computer instead of shutting it down and thought I had saved my work. But I hadn't, had I? Why? Because I'm an idiot. (AW - He's not quite telling the truth here, he's neglecting to mention the two bottles of wine he'd consumed in the process.) I haven't done that since High School, and as it went into sleep mode, even with the autosave feature working, by some horrible twist of fate I lost everything. One and a half blogs were gone. My version tracking didn't work, my attempts to find temporary files didn't work, I tried every program on the net I could find but nothing. If you had seen my face, you would have laughed, I looked like someone had just slapped me with a large Haddock. It all just disappeared completely, like
I hadn't written anything, and I've never seen that before. Needless to say that I was furious, Aleks was more furious, and I was soon very humble and feeling sorry for myself. To make up for it, I spent four hours between 7-11am sorting and uploading 4 blogs worth of photos as I couldn't bear to face re-writing it, the wounds were still a little fresh. Poor, poor Nemo eh? Aleks sat in the sunshine of a beautiful morning, and cursed me and my stupidity. I don't blame her. We had some honey and ricotta on biscotti and coffee (say that ten times fast) and at around midday, we got on the road to Tarquinia.
I just hit the save button twice, to make sure. I'm completely paranoid now.
Tarquinia is actually an ancient Roman necropolis dating from the second century, and was closed when we arrived. We forgot to read the part in the Lonely Planet that said “in the winter it closes at 2:30pm” though, didn't we. It was 3pm. We simply laughed it off at that stage and continued further down the coast toward Civitavecchia, and were blown away by how incredibly different the country
can be in the space of fifty to a hundred kilometres. From the rolling hills and valleys under a Tuscan sun, the area nearer the coast changed to a flatter, greener wetland, and the little crops and creeks running between them just off the road were really impressive. The road edged toward the ocean from time to time, and at about 4:30 we realised we'd missed lunch and were a little peckish, so we stopped at a deserted beachside cafe for a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches. The owners didn't speak english, and so the sandwiches were simply two bits of ham and cheese slapped between two pieces of bread, and they charged us €4 each for the luxury. They didn't even put any butter on it. They must have seen us coming a mile off. I'm glad I didn't buy a coke to go with it.
That night we pulled over at a truckstop on the final Autostrada heading into Roma, and realised how close we were. They had an internet point at the truckstop, and so we devoted a little time to doing some last minute research to find somewhere to stay. Camping Roma looked like
the place to be, and after considering our options for half an hour or so, we decided to give them a call and see what they could offer. Turns out that they had a deal going where it was cheaper to stay in one of their self contained bungalows for three nights than it was to sleep in the camper! Doesn't make sense does it? The deal they had was 40% off your final bill if you stayed for at least three nights. We called to confirm it wasn't a catch, and after the thumbs up we decided, what the heck, we might as well try and get there that night as the directions didn't seem too difficult. We jumped back on the road and hammered the last 80km into the centre of town, arriving easily at probably the best camping ground we've seen yet.
Why was it so good? That's another story, kiddies.
PS - I just pressed save twice again
There are more photos below