Preening Supermodel or Girl-Next-Door?
There is little I like more than a good contrast.
Even though the varying shades of grey are clear for all to see, including me, its the black or white options that leap out at me more often than not whenever I come to take photographs or write.
And Tuscany, the cultural and historic epicentre of Italy and location of our most recent adventure, has given me contrasts to consider by the bucket-load. Contrasts in landscape, history, culture and art, and that is just for starters. So I have decided that the best way to share our recent trips is to write two separate posts and make them as different and, well, contrasting as possible. And despite immersing myself in the wonderful cultural and artistic merits of this most beautiful of regions, I have decided to keep it as simple as possible and separate on the basis of landscape. So this post will cover the first couple of days of the trip and feature the celebrated cities on the banks of the River Arno, Florence and Pisa, and the second will cover the beautiful and isolated villages in the Apennine mountains and Apuan Alps.
Cities and villages.
Or plains and mountains.
Take your pick.
So where to start? The two wonderful cities that we included in our visit are also, in their own way, contrasts of each other. Florence is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Tuscany and probably Italy as well. An exquisite and quite stunning city, full of Renaissance art and architecture, it is the capital of the region and the place that many people include on their “must visit” or bucket lists. It really is as romantic and enchanting as the guidebooks say, and also staggering in as much as there are breath-catching buildings literally around every corner. It is full of history, character and charm and houses some of the greatest and most important artistic treasures in the world.
However, even in the autumn when the weather has turned and peak season has passed, it is still absolutely packed full of tourists.
Pisa, on the other hand, appears smaller than Florence and is perhaps a little more engaging. It has probably the most well known of all historic buildings in Italy, the famous white marble Leaning Tower, but it appears very much the poor relative when compared with the capital further along the Arno. Which is a shame, as the place has so much going for it. It is undoubtedly quieter, more personable and friendly, with its predominantly young university population, and gives the impression of somehow being dominated by its classy and cultured neighbour.
There is advice everywhere about how best to visit and enjoy Florence. Instead of repeating this, I would simply add that the more planning and research you do and the more time you are able to allow yourself, the more enjoyable your visit will almost certainly become. We declined to join any of the long queues or pay some of the rather inflated prices during our visit and kept it all straightforward, admiring the buildings mostly from the outside. The Duomo, or Santa Maria del Fiori, is the domed cathedral that dominates the skyline and is easily the most well known of the Florence monuments. Without doubt it is a striking and impressive sight, but a part of me did find it more than a little garish, an opinion not necessarily shared by my wife and, of course, one that I kept to myself whilst amongst the thousands of admirers outside. The Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi and the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge with ancient buildings and slightly newer padlocks (look it up) are all worth checking out. Possibly my favourite place was the Loggia Dei Lanzi, a building with wide arches open to the street on two sides, dating from 1382 and acting as an open-air gallery for some incredible stone and bronze statuary. The one building that we paid to visit however was the beautiful Basilica Di San Lorenzo, one of the largest churches in the city and, for almost 300 years, the main cathedral for Florence. With its impressive history and stunning design and decoration, including art by Donatello and Filippo Lippi, it claims to be the oldest in Florence and was the local church and subsequent burial place of the famous and powerful Medici family.
There are cafes and restaurants everywhere in Florence. No doubt because of the massive number of tourists, they often appeared to be very busy, expensive and, in some cases, a little intimidating from the outside. Best tip if you do want to eat whilst visiting is to take a look in the Borgo San Lorenzo, a side street connecting the Duomo and the Basilica. There were plenty of smaller places to chose from with great pasta or pizzas at reasonable prices and, certainly on the day we visited, plenty of available tables.
The main location for visitors to Pisa is clearly the Piazza del Miracoli, a beautifully green area to the north of the city which houses the cathedral, the baptistery and the famous leaning tower, actually intended to be the cathedral bell tower. Perhaps surprisingly, the city also has 20 other historic churches, several medieval palaces and a number of bridges across the Arno. Whilst clearly in the shadow of Florence, it has so much to see and is a cultural and artistic centre in its own right. The buildings along the river are stunning in their simplicity and colour and the walk from the railway station through the shopping area and into the old town gives an insight into what the place has to offer. I would also recommend using the train should you want to visit both cities. We made a return trip from Pisa to Florence and it was a great experience. With modern double-decker carriages it was easy and fast, just 48 minutes non-stop on the fast service and less than 9 euros each way.
As may already be clear, I quickly developed a soft spot for Pisa when compared to its more illustrious neighbour. For some strange reason I had this image of Florence as a bit of a preening supermodel, adored and lusted after by everyone but clearly knowing it, happy to share its luscious curves and cultured good looks but looking down its nose a little at its many admirers. Pisa on the other hand had more of a well balanced, girl-next-door kind of feel, complete with some slightly quirky features but always a warm welcome for admirers.
Just don't ask me where that very non-PC comparison came from!
With hindsight, I would recommend a visit to either place. They are famous and popular for very good reasons and if you can put up with being part of the infernal tourist machine then you will see some of the most stunning buildings in Italy. Florence is clearly the top dog and always will be, but if I can leave just one message with anyone reading this, it's that Pisa is just as worthy of your time as Florence, should you decide on a cultural pilgrimage to Tuscany.
And as a footnote, a word of caution. When you stroll through Florence, it’s quite possible that you may spend so much time looking up at the buildings that you forget to watch where you put your feet. I can assure you, half a day in an Italian hospital whilst they identify and treat broken ribs and a fractured wrist is not likely to be on anyone’s itinerary!
And In case you are wondering, it wasn’t me!