‘The routines of tourism are even more monotonous than those of daily life’ – Mason Cooley
Pisa, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Piles of wood and leaves, festering excrement and discarded old clothing and rags weren’t exactly the things I wanted to see in the campsite shower block. The showers were full of leaves and dried out droppings littered the floor. I stood there for a few moments, wondering whether this was actually the shower block or a set for the latest series of the walking dead. Gingerly stepping into a cubicle I tried the water – nothing, obviously turned off.
Having arrived in late afternoon on a Sunday there was no one around. I called the number on the gate and was told to pitch where I wanted and that staff would be there in the morning. With fading light and just birdsong for company, I wandered back up to the main block in search of life and a solution for my need to shower. Didn’t take long to realise it was just me in this maze of woodland and gravel tracks. So I settled down to a sumptuous meal of a breakfast bar and a coffee watching the fiery orange glow of dusk fade into complete darkness and silence.
I learnt three important lessons about camping that night. Firstly, your head sweats like crazy on those inflatable pillows but this was soon remedied by grabbing my discarded t-shirt and wrapping it around it. Secondly, sleeping in a mummy style bag is not good for me. There’s about 2 inches of spare room so if you stretch one arm, the other becomes restricted and so on. For some bizarre reason I spent quite some time trying to ‘stretch’ the bag by moving first one limb then another and pushing like a demented snow angel. Accepting defeat, I unzipped the bag and laid half in and half out of it. Thirdly, its a major effort to take a pee in the middle of the night. Undoing the flap of the tent and being in a semi comatose state, I pulled myself out, caught my foot on the inside of the tent and went sprawling into the damp grass.
Pisa, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Birdsong woke me at about 6am and with the steam rising off a cup of coffee, I sat back in my camping chair, feeling the first rays of sun on my face and watching the dew drops glisten on the tent. Wonderful. Having made a mental note of roughly where I had peed during the night, I wandered back up to the main camp block and waited.
The restaurant area was run by a Romanian family who leased it from the camp owners. Breakfast had to be ordered in advance so I made do with a piece of bread kindly provided by them – covered in salt but delicious (Focaccia genovese). Having explained the state of the showers, they laughed and told me that since it was out of season there was only one shower block working and that was in a different part of the site. It was good to shower finally. More on the Romanians later – I would eat and drink with them for a couple of nights.
The office opened, I paid my dues and they gave me directions to the train station which was a good 3 mile walk. Sun was shining so I was happy enough, good to get my legs stretched after being cramped up on the bike. Through Tuscan countryside, past farms and snarling dogs chained in cages, past the polizia who were dealing with an accident and eventually on to the train station. Took about an hour all told but trains to Pisa were frequent.
View from the top of the Battistero di San Giovanni, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
It’s approximately a 20 minute walk from the station to the leaning tower but it took longer since I stopped to eat at a backstreet place – some penne, glass of wine and some canoli from a street seller to munch as I walked along.
The main buildings of the leaning tower area are the tower itself (Torre di Pisa), the Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni and the Cathedral (Duomo). Prices were (in my view) extortionately high to go up the tower so I opted for the cheap seats and got a pass for the Baptistery and the cloisters of the Duomo. The Baptistery (see above photo) only takes a short time to see – it is, after all, a predominantly empty dome but it is filled with shapes and lines that lead your eyes all over the structure.
The cloisters of the Duomo are wide and impressive – reminiscent of the cloisters in English Churches. There are a a number of statues but it is the attention to detail in the flooring and the fresco’s that really stand out. It is a place of quiet contemplation and so I meandered a while, taking stock of it all. It had the added advantage that most of the tourist packs had headed for the main cathedral and tower. I lost track of how many people I saw trying to get the selfie where they are holding the tower as though preventing it from falling over. Even as I write this I am rolling my eyes. I digress.
Cloisters in the Duomo, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
The weather was cool and threatened rain for most of the day so after a slow wander back to the station via the river, I boarded the train and headed ‘home’. I called in at a supermarket on the way back and bought food and water – lugging that was a real chore back over the fields. The casual reader will be pleased to know that Italian shopping bags have the same guillotine action on your fingers with weight in as the UK ones. Still, I was set for food and drink although I spent most of the evening chatting to the Romanian family – two daughters and their mother. They were getting ready for the season and with only a handful of people on site, they cooked purely to order. Well, not really cooking – just very basic Pizza. It turned out that there were a handful of camper vans near the ‘working’ shower block – mainly Germans and Dutch who were enjoying an early (and cheap) break. It was a real opener for me while touring to see how big a camping culture still exists in mainland Europe whereas it has declined in the UK.
With a gastronomical delight of water, bread, cheese and tuna I retired to the strait jacket sleeping bag, turned off the torch and slept deeply. I even managed to avoid the pee patch during the night.
L’inconsolabile, (when asked what was wrong she apparently said ‘nothing’), 5d2, 16-35L
The journey to Florenzi the following day took a little longer than Pisa. The weather had taken a turn for the better with temperatures over 20 degrees and a big yellow thing in the wide expanse of blue stuff. It would be a hot day and so I fortified myself with fresh Canoli and coffee at a small cafe in the centre of town. Tourists….everywhere. Heaving. I ordered extra coffee. The queue for the cathedral was huge even at 9am and again the costs for entry were extortionate. Better to wander the streets and soak up the ambience – after all there are buildings and statues everywhere you look in Florenzi. I covered miles by foot, taking in the Palazzo Vechio, the Cathedral, Santa Croce, the Uffizi gallery, the Medici Chapel, Ponte Vecchio and countless statues. Hard going in the main areas – everywhere was crowded even in this supposed ‘low season’.
Statues trying to escape photographers, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
There is no doubt that Florenzi is a world class city for architecture and history. The list of sights is jaw dropping and it would take weeks to do it all justice if that is what you enjoy. Be prepared for the aggressive crowds in the main areas however – patience is a virtue and all that. Mine was tested to the limit as I vainly tried to get photographs of certain statues only to be physically pushed aside by someone else wanting their shot. This wasn’t a one off but a regular occurrence – I got to the point of packing the camera in my knapsack. It’s beyond me as to why people want to climb over statues that are priceless classics – it’s even farther beyond me as to why the Italian authorities don’t stop it. Still, makes a good instagram image I guess.
Sarcophagi in the Medici Chapel, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
For me, whilst the main attractions were impressive, there were a few that really stood out. The Medici Chapel is amazing – the remains of the Medici family are entombed in huge sarcophagi in a large open area. The photo just does not do it justice…you stand there , look at them and think ‘how big?’
Ponte Vecchio, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
The area surrounding Ponte Vecchio is very crowded, very overpriced and very full of hawkers. As an aside, I saw the news the following day on a TV in a cafe I stopped at while riding. Part of the embankment near the Ponte Vecchio had collapsed that morning sending a dozen cars into the river. I looked back at my photos and it was pretty much where I had taken the shot from. There but for the Grace of God….
The hawkers hassled me several times – not sure why my attire screamed money since I looked like a homeless tourist. Thinking about it, I guess I was a homeless tourist. These guys were persistent and aggressive and followed me a long way down a street. They are good salesmen and great at getting you to talk with questions like ‘where are you from, USA?’ I’m pretty confident they had never met a pilgrim named Paddy from Afghanistan but they seemed pleased to meet me. Not really sure why I would want an Umbrella on a sunny day or a bit of stick that looked like it had been chewed by a rabid otter. I doubted his claims it was for fertility. I ducked into a Church in a back street, seeking sanctuary.
Sanctuary, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
The church was cool and a welcome relief from the heat. It was also spectacular in it’s own way but what really made it stand out was the priest. He walked slowly up and down on the right hand side, murmuring gently, lost in his prayers and referring occasionally to the bible that he balanced in his left hand. This was a ‘working’ church – I was the only tourist there, all others were praying silently. People came and people went, I sat in the pews trying to work out how long I needed to wait to avoid buying a fertility stick. For each of the people and for me also, the priest did an amazing thing. He looked up from his text, slowly came to a stop, fixed his eyes on you and then smiled before resuming his slow gait. I could write a whole host of things about that but I’m sure you will come to your own conclusions.
Grave, Santa Maria Novella, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
The final stop in a hectic day was the Santa Maria Novella which I stumbled upon. Far less tourists and again a working church with areas closed off for worshippers. The church had stunning glass windows which threw patterns of light over the marbled floor. It’s easy to see why people would think that God was present with the bright colours flowing over the white surfaces. The grounds of the Santa Maria Novella are the best part though – tunnels, antechambers and graves abound – all of them hundreds of years old.
Grounds of Santa Maria Novella, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
By this point, it was late and I was spent. A welcome relief to get back on the train, close my eyes and listen to some Hawkwind. First bit of sunburn too on the back of my neck. A tiring but enjoyable day in Florenzi despite the crowds. Just a 3 mile walk at the end of it all from the train station to the campsite. After a long day of walking, my enthusiasm for exercise and stretching my legs had all but evaporated. Arriving back at camp after 8, I settled down for a few beers with the Romanians, a cold shower and an early night to get ready for riding through Tuscany the following day.
Statue on the Cathedral of Florenzi, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Ponte Vecchio Views, Canon 5d2, 16-35L