We planned this trip together with Shikhar and Shree. Since none of us had many office leaves left, we planned a short trip to Tuscany.
Day 1 – 27 October 2022
We had a morning flight from Eindhoven to Pisa. So we picked up Shikhar and Shree from their home and drove to Eindhoven early in the morning. We arrived in Pisa in the afternoon and picked up our rental car at the airport.
We drove to Piazza Dei Miracoli, which is a walled, 8.87-hectare area located in Pisa and recognised as an important centre of European mediaeval art and one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. Considered sacred by the Catholic Church, its owner, the square is dominated by four great religious edifices: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistery, the Campanile, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). Partly paved and partly grassed, the Piazza Dei Miracoli is also the site of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. The construction of the Duomo (an Italian cathedral) began in the 11th century and was only completed in the 19th century when the square was given its current appearance by architect Alessandro Gherardesca. In 1987, the whole square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent half the day in the square and visited most of these places.
We started with what Pisa is mostly known for: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the campanile, or freestanding bell tower, of Pisa Cathedral. It is known for its nearly four-degree lean, the result of an unstable foundation. The tower’s height is 55.86 metres (183 feet 3 inches) from the ground on the low side and 56.67 metres (185 feet 11 inches) on the high side. The width of the walls at the base is 2.44 m (8 ft 0 in). Its weight is estimated at 14,500 metric tonnes (16,000 short tonnes). The tower has 296 or 294 steps; the seventh floor has two fewer steps on the north-facing staircase. The tower began to lean during construction in the 12th century due to soft ground that could not properly support the structure’s weight. It worsened with the completion of construction in the 14th century. By 1990, the tilt had reached 5.5 degrees. The structure was stabilized by remedial work between 1993 and 2001, which reduced the tilt to 3.97 degrees. We clicked lots of pictures—both normal and cliché ones—because I didn’t want to act cool and later regret not doing it.
We had a quick lunch and gelato from a cart vendor outside the campus. Then we bought a combined ticket to visit all the other monuments in the square.
We went to the Duomo Di Pisa, which is a mediaeval Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the oldest of the three structures in the plaza. The cathedral is a notable example of Romanesque architecture, in particular the style known as Pisan Romanesque. Consecrated in 1118, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Pisa. Construction began in 1063 and was completed in 1092. Additional enlargements and a new facade were built in the 12th century, and the roof was replaced after damage from a fire in 1595. It was beautiful and extravagant from the outside as well as the inside. Even the three large doors had beautiful markings.
We then went inside the Battistero di San Giovanni, which is the largest baptistery in Italy and, like the famous leaning tower, leans 0.6 degrees toward the cathedral. It is 54.86 m high, with a diameter of 34.13 m. The Pisa Baptistery is an example of the transition from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style: the lower section is in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches, while the upper sections are in the Gothic style, with pointed arches. The Baptistery is constructed of marble, as is common in Italian architecture. The exterior of the dome is clad with lead sheets on its east side (facing the cathedral) and red tiles on its west side (facing the sea), giving it a half-grey, half-red appearance from the south. In the middle of the baptistery, the Baptismal Font by Guido Bigarelli is set at the centre stage, with natural illumination coming from a hole in the ceiling, now covered by the cupola. The interior lacked decoration. We were not that impressed, but as soon as we started leaving, the gates were closed. A man came to the stage and created different sounds, which echoed in the closed building to show the acoustics. That was an interesting experience!
Finally, we went to Camposanto Munumentale, which is a monumental cemetery. “Campo Santo” can be translated as “holy field”, because it is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Third Crusade by Ubaldo Lanfranchi, archbishop of Pisa in the 12th century. Begun in 1277 by the architect Giovanni de Simone, it is a rectangular structure with an inner cloister with Gothic arcades. The most admirable feature was the beautiful frescoes on its walls and the magnificently carved marble graves.
After visiting all the sights in the square, we drove to Florence. When we almost reached Florence, we were passing by Piazzale Michelangelo, which is a square with a panoramic view of Florence. The square, dedicated to the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, has bronze copies of some of his marble works found elsewhere in Florence: the David and the four allegories of the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo. The view captures the heart of Florence from Forte Belvedere to Santa Croce, across the lungarni and the bridges crossing the Arno, including the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello, and the octagonal bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina. We reached there just after sunset, and it was so crowded with tourists that we were having difficulty finding an empty spot near the railing to take pictures. We thought we would visit this place again in the next 2 days during sunset, but that never happened.
Finally, we reached Hu Firenze Camping in Town, where we spent 3 out of 4 nights. It is located on the banks of the River Arno, in a lush green space full of plants and trees. Each unit came with air conditioning, a patio, and a private bathroom with a shower. A small Italian breakfast buffet was available each morning at the on-site bar. We settled into our camp unit and got all the amenities we needed.
Then we decided to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner. We ordered a few pizzas and house wines at Ristorante Pizzeria Casamatta.
Day 2 – 28 October 2022
We started our day with breakfast at the camp restaurant. After a little discussion, we decided to leave our car at the camp and take a bus to the city to avoid parking problems.
We walked to Piazza del Duomo, which is located in the heart of the historic centre of Florence. It is one of the most visited places in Europe and the world, and in Florence, it is the most visited area of the city. The square contains the Florence Cathedral with the Cupola del Brunelleschi, Giotto’s Campanile, the Florence Baptistery, the Loggia del Bigallo, the Opera del Duomo Museum, and the Arcivescovile and Canonici’s palace. As soon as we reached the piazza, we were awestruck by the majestic view of the cathedral. The piazza was very lively and had lots of people. In one corner, we could see street artists and horse carriages. There were lots of souvenir stalls, eateries, and cafes all around the place.
We decided to go inside the Cathedrale Santa Maria Del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower), which is the cathedral of Florence. The construction began in 1296 in the Gothic style to a design by Arnolfo di Cambio and structurally completed by 1436, with the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. The exterior of the basilica is faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink, bordered by white, and has an elaborate 19th-century Gothic Revival façade by Emilio De Fabris. The basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches, and until the development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. There was a huge queue to enter the cathedral, so Rishi and Shikhar stood in line while Sree and I took pictures of each other. The inside of the church was a bit plain compared to the jaw-dropping exterior. We did not buy tickets to see the crypt and tombs, which were underground. Overall, the Duomo was magnificent and mesmerising.
Florence is noted for its culture, Renaissance art, architecture, and monuments. The city also contains numerous museums and art galleries. We decided to visit the Galleria Dell’Accademia Di Firenze, which according to our research was a relatively smaller museum compared to the Uffizi and could be done in an hour. It is best known as the home of Michelangelo’s sculpture, David. It also has other sculptures by Michelangelo and a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists, mostly from the period 1300–1600 (the Trecento to the Late Renaissance). We booked our tickets online; there was no priority entry, and we needed to get in the correct line; a tour representative gave us our physical ticket, and we realised that it would probably have been cheaper to just buy the tickets from the gallery directly. We roamed around the gallery, and nothing was as impressive as the main attraction. The Michaelangelo David statue was much more impressive in person than it looks in the photos. It was huge, and the posture and detail were amazing. Every tensed muscle was sculpted with extraordinary accuracy and precision.
We then decided to walk around the city and find our way to a few more attractions. We walked to Piazza Della Repubblica which is a city square and was originally the site of the city’s forum. Then we reached Mercato Centrale Firenze, which is an open-air market that has a cast-iron structure dating back to 1874. The market was filled with leather goods, which Florence is known for. As soon as we exited the market, I spotted Fontana Del Porcellino which is a bronze fountain of a boar. There are two legends associated with the fountain. According to the first legend, put a coin inside Porcellino’s mouth, make a wish, and let go! If the coin goes straight into the grate, the wish will come true. According to the 2nd legend, rubbing the nose of the Porcellino before leaving Florence made sure the return. I tried to get the coin to go in the grate but I did not succeed so I settled for the nose rub.
Then we finally reached Piazza Della Signoria, which is a w-shaped square. It is the main point of origin and history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political focus of the city. The square is shared by the Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia Della Signoria, the Uffizi Gallery, the Palace of the Tribunale della Mercanzia (now the Bureau of Agriculture), and the Palazzo Uguccioni.
We started with the Loggia Dei Lanzi, which is a beautiful arched gallery that was built in the 14th century. This building was formally called the Loggia Della Signoria, but is often referred to as the Loggia Dei Lanzi due to German mercenary guards (in Italian: Lanzichenecchi, corrupted to Lanzi) who were stationed there on their way to Rome in the sixteenth century (1527). It is an open-air museum with fantastic sculptures. It is free to enter and is adjacent to the Uffizi Museum.
We then went inside Palazzo Vecchio, which is the town hall of Florence. Construction on the solid fortress began in 1299, above the ruins of the destroyed Uberti Ghibelline towers, a testimony to the final victory of the Guelph faction. We entered the first courtyard, which was designed in 1453 by Michelozzo. In the lunettes, high around the courtyard, are crests of the church and city guilds. In the centre, the porphyry fountain is by Battista del Tadda. There were tickets to visit the floor above, so we skipped it.
We went to Fontana Del Nettuno, which is situated in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned the fountain in 1559 to celebrate the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici I to Grand Duchess Joanna of Austria. The fountain was designed by Baccio Bandinelli but created by Bartolomeo Ammannati with the assistance of several other artists between 1560 and 1574. It incorporates a series of mythological figures and iconographies that symbolize both Cosimo I de’ Medici’s power and the union of Francesco and Joanna.
We went to Il Ricettario for lunch, which was rated 4.7 on Google. We ordered a Pici Senesi all’Etrusca (spaghetti pesto), a Stracci Alla Trabaccolara Viareggina (seafood pasta), and a ravioli whose name I can’t remember. Both the pasta dishes were delicious. I did not try the ravioli because it had beef, but others said that it was tasty too.
We then walked to the Ponte Vecchio, which is a mediaeval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River. The only bridge in Florence spared from destruction during the Second World War, it is noted for the shops built along it; building shops on such bridges was once a common practice. Butchers, tanners, and farmers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers, and souvenir sellers. After walking on the bridge, we also walked away from the bridge to get a view of the bridge from the side.
We finally walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, which is the principal Franciscan church in Florence and a minor basilica of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, the poet Foscolo, the philosopher Gentile, and the composer Rossini; thus, it is also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories (Tempio dell’Itale Glorie). By the time we reached there, it was already closed, so we couldn’t go inside. But it still looked beautiful from the outside. The church exterior is covered with a polychrome marble façade added in 1863.
By the time we finished clicking pictures there, it started getting dark. We retraced our steps back to the duomo and sat on the stairs to people-watch. We also made plans for the next day, then went back to our camp for dinner at the restaurant.
Day 3 – 29 October 2022
We had breakfast at the camp before leaving. We had planned to visit 2 other beautiful towns which had come up when we researched about Tuscany.
The first town we visited was Siena, distinguished by its mediaeval brick buildings. Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome; thus, Siena’s emblem is the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus. This Tuscan city grew on three hills that were linked by three major streets that formed a Y and intersected in a valley that became the Piazza del Campo. The seven-kilometre-long fortified wall still surrounds the 170-hectare site. We went for a short walk after seeing the city’s two most popular attractions.
Our first stop in Siena was the Duomo di Siena, a mediaeval church in Siena that was originally a Roman Catholic Marian church and is now dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure. It has the form of a Latin cross with a slightly projecting transept, a dome, and a bell tower. The dome rises from a hexagonal base with supporting columns. The dome was completed in 1264. The lantern atop the dome was added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The exterior and interior are constructed of white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, with the addition of red marble on the façade. Black and white are the symbolic colours of Siena, etiologically linked to the black and white horses of the legendary city’s founders, Senius and Aschius. Adjoining the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library, housing precious illuminated choir books and frescoes painted by the Umbrian Bernardino di Betto, called Pinturicchio, probably based on designs by Raphael. The frescoes tell the story of the life of Siena’s favourite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II. The ceiling is covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. They were executed between 1502 and 1503 by Pinturicchio and his assistants. The cathedral, along with the library, was mesmerising and gorgeous.
Then, we walked to Piazza Del Campo, which is the main public space of the historic centre of Siena and is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest mediaeval squares. It is renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural integrity. We sat on the ground like everyone else and admired the view of the busy square.
On our way to the next town, we came across Pietraserena Winery Di Arrigoni. At Pietraserena, four generations of the Arrigoni family have been making the best Italian wines from their vineyards in Tuscany and Liguria. All the wines made by the company are from estate-grown grapes at their winery. The tour was very informative on Italy’s wine-making process and about the grapes and vines. The most fascinating bit of information for me was how white wine is made by removing the skin immediately, red wine is made by keeping the skin when ageing, and finally, rosé is made by keeping the skin for a few hours before removing it for ageing. The winery has amazing views of our next destination from one side and the Tuscan countryside from the other. We tasted four different types of wine and could only distinguish the last one as very unique. We also realised that we are not wine experts, but the overall experience was wonderful.
Finally, we went to San Gimignano, which is a small walled mediaeval hill town in the province of Siena. Known as the “Town of Fine Towers,” San Gimignano is famous for its mediaeval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls, form “an unforgettable skyline.” Within the walls, the well-preserved buildings include notable examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture. We reached there around sunset and strolled through the town. We ate pizza from Trancio Di Pizza and loved it so much that we later got pizza packed for dinner as well.