Nov 2019 - Tuscany Part 1
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
The journey further into Italy continued. Without any real plan and booking things at most a week in advance (the benefit of off-season travel), it was never really sure where the next destination would be. At the end of the trip it turned out it really didn't matter, there wasn't a single place that even remotely disappointed.
Tuscany is a region everyone knows, thanks in part to various movies and books. It was natural to end up here. The first stop, as a base to explore the local area, was a town/city by the name of Lucca, population around 90,000.
Lucca dates way back, to the Etruscans, so well into BC. it became a Roman colony in 180 BC and Caesar had some type of conference (junket?) here with Pompey and Crassus in 56 BC. The history of the Lucca from there on, well, it's complicated. It was even an independent republic for 500 years from the 12th to 17th centuries. Napoleon conquered it in 1805, who installed his sister as Princess of Lucca.
The coolest feature of Lucca is the old town fortress wall, which is completely intact and encircles the entire old town. It's so wide on top (guesstimate - 30m) that has a pedestrian and cycling promenade, lined with enormous oak trees. We hired some bikes and rode around the town on the wall a few times. It seems to be the thing to do for the locals, everyone is walking, cycling, running etc on the walls. One one side you have a view of the old town with its towers and cathedrals, the other a view across the rest of the city and the snow-capped Alpe Apuane. The wall has 11 huge bastions and 7 gates. All quite nice really.
Our Airbnb was just outside the wall near a primary school, about a 10min walk from the old town. The old town itself was a veritable maze of streets in a typical Roman grid layout, connecting various piazzas and the old town wall gates. The vibe was actually more reminiscent of a north European city, not sure why, maybe because there was so much cycling, something you don't generally see in Italian cities.
Lucca was the chosen base for also visiting Florence and Pisa, somewhat popular places. It was in both these places but especially Florence that we would re-encounter the tourist en masse. Florence is apparently one of the most visited places in Europe now; it was noticeable. To avoid the carnage and possible impossibility of getting a ticket to Florence's Duomo / Cathedral once there, we would bought a 'tour' ticket online for some now-forgotten but exorbitant price.
No way on earth was I driving into the centre of Florence, luckily - a direct response to the unbelievable crowds this city attracts - they've built a giant paid Park 'n Ride on the city outskirts connected by light rail to the centre.
A few hours after leaving Lucca, we stood gawking at the 500m queue to get into the cathedral, that's for those with tickets. Our booked tickets, which didn't include the cathedral, were to climb up the dome itself at a certain time slot. We would never actually enter the cathedral but saw it from inside the dome, good enough! The dome is a hell of a climb, think near 500 stairs and occasionally barely 1 metre wide. It was the access passage for the workers of the cathedral. Hard to describe the dome itself but safe to say it's quite ridiculous all those frescoes on its inside. It's now 600 years since it was built and it's still the largest brick dome on earth; there's actually two layers to the dome to give it structural integrity.
After the Duomo, a quick - as always - packed lunch and tea from the thermos before wandering the streets, passing too many monuments to remember but including Michelangelo's statue of David and his willy, the 16th century bronze statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, the famous bronze Boar (place your hand inside the mouth), and the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge that is lined with expensive jewelers. It was on this bridge that I paid (there was no sign with prices) $16 for a 2 scoop gelato.... $#@!
The final side trip from Lucca was to Pisa, which I did drive into the very centre of by car, trusting the online story of a tiny, cheap, safe car park 5 min walk from the leaning tower - what could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing; it was as told. Pisa, while also very touristy, is much more laid back than Florence. I've never been that drawn to the need to visit the leaning tower, seems gimmicky to me, and yet I ended up climbing up it. The lean is very noticeable on the spiral stair case!! Only 50 people are allowed in at a time. It's also guarded by a armed military truck and guards, standard 21st century tourist site.
While the tower was pretty cool, it's actually just the bell tower of the cathedral (duomo), which is enormous and has a splendid facade. Next to that is the also gigantic domed baptistery and 12th century monumental cemetery that houses an unknown number of tombs but you're walking over them as you pass through 43 arches and 2.6 km (!) of frescoes, more than the Sistine Chapel. The brain fails to comprehend these places, just unbelievable.
The weather all this time was rainy, not the typical summery scene of Tuscany, which of course does not last all year. That's the trade-off for low tourist numbers, cheap accommodation and limited need to book in advance.
It was a toss up between starting the journey back toward The Netherlands or a quick foray further south into Tuscany. The latter won out, Italy is very hard to leave once Under the Tuscan Rain Cloud!