Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Pisa and Florence

Another beautiful sunrise this morning, illuminating mountains that appear to be topped with snow, although we later learn it’s actually marble shining white in the sunlight. I watch the ship negotiate into the confines of Livorno harbour – a busy working port with dilapidated warehouses. We meet in the theatre after breakfast ready to be called for our tour. Labelled “Pisa and Florence on your own”, it turns out half the ship is coming with us!

Pisa is not far away – actually it used to be a port but now is 8km from the coast. We park a few minutes walk away from Miracle Square where the iconic buildings are. It’s very busy with scores of people jostling to do the familiar “holding up the tower” pose. The square includes a cathedral, baptistery and cemetery – so all angles are covered – but of course it’s the tilting tower that captures the imagination. It really does lean at a quite alarming angle and I’m secretly relieved we’re not here long enough to climb it, even though that’s what I would normally do with a tall landmark.

We only have 45 minutes at Pisa but that’s long enough given the crowds. It’s just over an hour to Florence, and as we approach through the outskirts of the city I’m already smitten. Our coach drops us by the river and we walk to the Piazza Santa Croce, the first of three notable squares which between them contain most of the key landmarks of the city. We have decided to head back to the river first of all, and visit the Ponte Veccia, the only surviving original bridge now flanked by goldsmiths.

Halfway across there is a statue surrounded by railings to which lovers have attached padlocks. A notice indicates that this practice is illegal, which doesn’t seem to deter those who are happy to identify themselves by marking their names on the padlocks.

We have lunch at the Trattoria Ponte Veccia and opt for the local dish – a thick T-bone steak, served with roasted potatoes in aromatic salt and butter beans. It’s delicious. From here we head to the loggia outside the Uffizi Gallery where modern-day artists draw portraits of tourists below statues of Florence’s geniuses. At the Piazza Signorina a replica of Michelangelo’s David is just one of the many statues that display amazing artistry.

We stop here to buy an ice cream, which Alex declares to be the best he has ever tasted. He’s finally defeated and I get to finish the last of the three flavours – a chocolate ice-cream so rich that it’s more like fudge – delicious!

I absolutely love the architecture of Florence, and the whole ambience of the city. It’s stylish and yet still rooted in its ancient heritage. It’s definitely somewhere I would want to return to; which is just as well because on a cruise schedule you don’t get to linger anywhere very long. The only disappointment, if you can call it that, it the Duomo – its multicoloured marble façade seems gaudy in comparison to the restrained elegance of the rest of the city. All  too soon we have to head back to the meeting point, stopping on the way for Alex to buy a wallet and to get granitas for all of us.

We stop briefly before leaving the city at a viewpoint where there’s a panoramic view. This really is a beautiful area and I’d love to come back and explore properly. But we have to return to the ship and continue our journey. We’re hot and tired, but the pool is refreshingly cold and so is the cocktail that I take back to our cabin. From our balcony I watch a stunning sunset – odd, since I also watched the sun rise from the same spot this morning. But a fitting end to a lovely day.

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