On my recent trip to Italy, I stayed at Hostel Pisa. Although the hostel had perfectly adequate facilities and friendly, helpful staff, there was one thing that was noticeable for it’s absence. Apart from a few books left at reception, which I don’t think there were two of in the same language, there was no book swap.
One of the things I like most about staying at a hotel or hostel is discovering the book swap. It’s such a simple idea, but one that works so well. When you’re done with your book, you simply leave it for someone else and select another one. Although I didn’t actually require the services of the book swap on this trip (before I left Innsbruck my brother had loaded me up with enough English books to last me a year) I still missed sifting through the worn books to find hidden treasures.
I always like to imagine the journey that the books themselves must have been on, passing from traveller to traveller and book swap to book swap as they make their way around the planet. Sometimes you find clues left in the books as to where they might have been. Once, whilst travelling on the east coast of America, I picked up a book with a bookmark from San Francisco in it. Had this book come from San Francisco? Was it simply the bookmark that had made the long journey across the country? Who knows?
The more I thought about the books and their journeys, the more the idea fascinated me. I could pick up a book that I’d already handled five years ago in another country and not know it. That’s why I now leave my mark in every book I read (that’s not a library book, owned by someone or otherwise disrespectful to write in of course). In the bottom corner of the inside back cover, I leave my little juggler-man symbol:
I’ve also started to write where I was when I finished the book and the date. My hope is that, one day, I will pick up a book and find my mark already there. Or that other people will join in with my game and leave their own personal signatures in the back of books. Together, we could help the books to tell their travel stories.
When I was 12 years old, my parents took me on my first trip abroad. It was a coach trip to the Black Forrest in Germany. I can’t recall now whether it was on the way there or the way back, but at some point we journeyed through Belgium and my dad bought me a toy monkey from a service station. I lovingly named my monkey Malcolm, after our coach driver, and kept him close by the whole trip.
That was twenty years ago. Since then, Malcolm has accompanied me on many more trips around Europe as well as venturing across the ocean with me to North America on a few occasions. Wherever we go, Malcolm always creates a talking point. When other travellers see him, they quite often admit to having their own cuddly toy or personal totem that they take with them whenever they travel.
Malcolm is semi-retired now, I usually only take him on the big trips. I didn’t take him with me on my recent trip to Italy, and I missed him. I felt bad for leaving him out, so I thought I’d make it up to him by sharing with you some of his travel photos.
Do you have a travel buddy that you always take with you wherever you go?
During my recent trip to Italy, one thing I noticed in abundance everywhere I went was the amount of really good street art. It was painted on the walls of subways, train stations, on the sides of the trains themselves, on temporary walls to hide building sites. Basically, anywhere that there was space that wasn’t already being used.
I know a lot of people just see street art as vandalism, but my personal opinion is that, when it’s done properly, it’s beautiful. Here are some photos I took whilst wandering around Italy.
For my last day in Italy, I decided to stay in Pisa and take it easy. I knew I had a long journey ahead of me in the evening to get home, so I didn’t want to walk too far that day. I opted for a stroll along the side of the river Arno, a great opportunity to take even more pictures of the Pisan architecture.
The Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, which sits on the banks of the river, is home to an impressive collection of Medieval art, including bacini ceramici (decorated bowls) and polyptychs (a particular type of painted altarpiece). The building itself is part of an ancient Benedictine nunnery founded in the 11th century and named after Saint Matthew. The museum artefacts almost seem lost in the vast space in which they are housed. The building is incredible. Very little has been done to renovate it, it’s like someone has simply placed some pieces of art in an abandoned church. It felt a bit eerie when I first walked in, especially since I was the only person there, but then I began to appreciate the beauty of the setting. I was actually a little upset when two other visitors entered and disturbed my peace and quiet. There are huge areas of the building that still aren’t used for anything, just void spaces. Unlike the other museums that I had visited in Pisa, this one provided no signage to direct you to the exhibits or to even tell you which rooms were empty and which contained art. You’re left to wander round and work it out for yourself. Whereas this system would cause utter chaos in one of the busy Piazza dei Miracoli museums, here as the Museo Nazional di San Matteo it seemed rather apt. Just like the artwork that it houses, you fell like you’ve suddenly just found yourself in this grand building.
I’d hoped to also walk up to the top of Torre Guelfa on my last day in Pisa. Built in the 15th century, the tower was completely destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt in 1956, and the views from the top of its 200 steps have been described as ‘enchanting’. Unfortunately, though, it turned out the tower wasn’t open whilst I was there. I think I need to visit Pisa earlier in the season so I don’t miss so much! I did manage to take lots of photos of the tower, however.
My last views of Pisa were doing something that I have never done before, anywhere in the world that I have visited. I walked to the airport. Yes, believe it or not, the airport was only a twenty minute (I could have done it in ten without my backpack) walk from my hostel. It was actually quicker to walk straight there than to walk to the station and catch the train. When I first read that my hostel was a ten minute walk from the airport, I thought it must have been a misprint. There was no mistake, though, and I enjoyed a leisurely stroll on a warm October evening. Definitely one of the more relaxed ways that I’ve ended a trip.
Dark clouds and the occasional shower the previous day had threatened that the weather would change. On my third day in Pisa, I woke to grey skies and rain. Just my luck that the wet weather would arrive on the one day I planned to go to the coast.
Today my quest was to catch the train to Livorno, sometimes known as Leghorn, the second largest city in Tuscany, that was rebuilt after heavy bombing during World War II. During my short walk to Pisa Central train station, I admired the adaptability of the street hawkers. One minute they’re trying to sell you watches and sunglasses, then as soon as there’s the first sighting of even the tiniest cloud in the sky, these disappear to be replaced by umbrellas for sale. As I have a fear of umbrellas, having them shoved in my face by people trying to get me to buy one every few yards isn’t the most comfortable experience for me. Before you say it, no, my fear is not irrational. The spiky bits on the end of umbrellas really hurt if they poke you in the eye, and my hair always gets caught in the metal workings. I battled my way through and made my way onto the train to Livorno.
In stark contrast to the old, traditional winding streets of Pisa and Lucca, Livorno is a very modern, metropolitan city. This is probably due to the extent that it was rebuilt after the war.
One part of the city that thankfully survived the bombings is the area known as ‘Piccola Venezia’, or ‘Little Venice’. With its small canals running between the streets and under petite bridges, Little Venice brings a real charm to Livorno. The centre piece of the Piccola Venezia area is the Fortezza Nuova, a massive fort built for the Medici family in the late 16th century. The inside of the fort is now a park, although unfortunately I couldn’t get in to the park because of building works at the entrance. Building works seemed to be following me everywhere this week! Not everything was working against me, though. The sun came out as I was walking around the outside of the fort.
Fortezza Vecchia, on the waterfront, is also known as ‘The Old Fort’ and was constructed 60 years earlier than Fortezza Nuova on the site of an 11th century building. When Cosimo, the first Grand-Duke of Tuscany, began the plans for building the port of Livorno, he had a palace built for himself inside the fort so he could keep an eye on things. The building was also used as a prison during the 1800s.
The weather was not so good as the previous day when I woke on my second morning in Pisa, but other than a short debate with myself about whether to pack a hoody or a fleece I didn’t let it slow me down. Today I was catching a train to Lucca, a 30 minute journey from Pisa Central. The regional train networks in Italy are very easy to navigate. You don’t even have to attempt any Italian, all the stations have automated machines in four languages, including English. You simply type in where you want to go, put in the required euros and it prints you a ticket. Unlike the musical platforms of the British rail network, most trains at Italian stations leave from the same platform everyday, and because of that they are able to have a permanent departures board.
When I disembarked the train at Lucca, the first thing I did was head towards the tourist information at Piazza Verdi. There is a bus that will take you there, but I took my guidebook’s advice that it is quicker to walk.
Lucca is surrounded by 12 metre high walls that were built to protect the old city in the 16th and 17th centuries. On top of the walls is a 4km long, circular footpath which was used as a track to race cars for a number of years in the 20th century. Each of the four principal sides are lined with a different tree species.
As I entered the walls via the Porto San Pietro, one of the gates into the city, I could see why it’s quicker to walk than to take the bus. If I thought that the streets in Pisa were narrow and winding, here in Lucca they were positively claustrophobic. My camera was kept busy taking photos of all the picturesque buildings that I saw on my way to Piazza Verdi.
Navigating the streets of Lucca is like trying to navigate a labyrinth, only with the added danger of pedestrians, cars, buses and bicycles flying at you from every angle. Although you’re supposed to stay on the right side of the road in Italy, here that rule seemed irrelevant, along with all the one-way signs and other signage that everyone seemed to be ignoring. I decided that my best plan of action was to act like I used to in Greece, go where I wanted to go and not worry about everyone else.
My previous day’s walking around Pisa had left me with incredibly sore feet, so I’d decided to rent a bike for my day in Lucca. This would result in me having a very sore bottom after a couple of hours, but at least my feet would get a bit of a rest. I rented my bike from the tourist information office, although there are multiple bike rental shops dotted all around Lucca. Bike rental generally costs €3 per hour, rising to €15 for the day. The tourist information offices also supply great, free maps of the city, essential if you don’t want to miss anything in a place that is so spread out and difficult to navigate.
From Piazza Verdi, I cycled straight up onto the promenade on top of the city walls, and I am so glad I did. It’s like a whole other world up there, a peaceful, relaxed oasis surrounding the busy, loud old city below. The footpath along the walls reminded me of the park opposite my house, a beautiful space that is well used by local residents and visitors alike. To refer to it just as a footpath is a huge understatement. Joggers, walkers and cyclists take advantage of the open space to exercise, tourists take advantage of the photo opportunities from the high vantage point, diners enjoy their lunch in restaurants and cafes housed in converted old buildings and there are playgrounds full of happy children at regular points along the 4km circuit.
The walls are also a lot easier to navigate the city from as you are able to drop back down into the commotion whenever you need to. Although reluctant to leave the enjoyment and serenity of the walls, I made my way down one of the steep paths and to the cathedral. I’d been told previous to my visit that entry to the cathedral costs €2.50. I wasn’t asked to pay, but that may have been due to building works at the time. Lucca Cathedral, although not as grand as it’s more famous cousin in Pisa, is still a very impressive building. I particularly liked the frescoes on the ceiling with their deep blue backgrounds. Next door to the cathedral, the Museo della Cattedrale contains artefacts from the cathedral. Unfortunately, the thought and attention to detail that is common place in the museums as Pisa has not been put in to practice here as well. Unless you take an audio guide, there is not much explanation as to what everything is. After paying €4 entrance, I was a little disappointed. Even though I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at, though, the exhibits were still beautiful. It still amazes me how much goes into religious artefacts. A bishop’s robe is not just a piece of decorative clothing, a tapestry is not just something to hang on a wall. Every symbol and image used is carefully chosen and exquisitely painted, sculpted or stitched to tell a story. Even books have their own covers made for them with minute detailing etched on the cover.
In a bid to get some good photos of the main tourist attractions of Pisa with as few people in them as possible, I rose early on my first day and headed for Piazza dei Miracoli. Neither of the two maps that I had picked up were much good, and after wandering through narrow streets lined with tall, multi-storey traditional Italian homes and businesses, I arrived in the Piazza from a totally different direction than the one I had intended. Whilst trying to locate any landmark on my map, I’d managed to walk past the Leaning Tower twice without even noticing it.
It was 9am and the stalls that depend on the tourism were starting to come to life. Although there were already a few people milling around, my plan had worked and I was able to capture some shots without twenty people in the foreground, posing for other photographers, pretending to push the Leaning Tower over or hold it up.
All the guidebooks advise, nay insist, that you book your Leaning Tower ticket in advance to avoid disappointment. With this in mind, I approached the ticket office at 9.15am, and the lady there told me I could take the 9.30am tour. Maybe it’s not always that busy, then. I also bought a combined ticket for the Piazza’s other attractions – the Cathedral (Duomo), Baptistry, Camposanto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie.
Like all major landmarks that I’d seen on TV prior to seeing them in real life, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower isn’t as big as I’d expected it to be. Access to the tower is by guided tour only, and you have to leave all bags (except cameras) in a locker at the bottom. When you’re climbing the tower, the only things you want to be worried about holding on to are yourself and your camera!
The Piazza as a whole is managed by its staff with almost military precision. All the people who work there, from the ticket sellers to the guides and the people who scan tickets all day are very helpful and informative. They do not betray the fact that they’ve been answering the same questions day in, day out all year. They are not particularly the friendliest people I’ve encountered at such a place, but when visiting in October I appreciate it’s the end of a very long and very busy season for them.
Although the Leaning Tower has acquired its nickname for obvious reasons, the tower is actually the campanile (or bell tower) of the cathedral. Building of the tower commenced in 1173 and occurred in three stages across 344 years. No-one is sure who the original architect was, but considering that it started to lean soon after construction began and was noticeable once 3 levels were completed, you can’t blame the architect for not owning up to this one. The tower leans because of the soft foundation on which it stands, although in recent years it has been straightened up considerably. There have been a few attempts over the years to stop the tower from continuing to lean for fear it might fall over completely. I like the ingenuity of the team working under the architect Giovanni di Simone in 1272. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, his engineers built some of the upper floors with one side taller than the other. So now, not only does the tower still lean, but it is actually curved. Between 1990 and 2001 the tower was closed to the public for building work including earth removal, a steel frame and an almost 900 ton counterweight. The experts say it is now good for another 300 years.
There are many fantastic stories that surround the tower. One of my favourites is that During World War II, the Allies discovered that the Germans were using the tower as an observation post. A US Army sergeant sent to confirm the presence of German troops in the tower was so impressed by the beauty of the cathedral and its campanile that he refrained from ordering an artillery strike, sparing it from destruction. How different the tourist appeal of this area would have been if it were not for the decision of one cultured Army sergeant. To him we will forever be grateful.
Once you enter the tower, there is a short talk by your guide explaining an abridged history of the building. Then you’re free to wander up the 294 steps as best you can. I was surprised to find that the inside of the tower is an empty chamber. I don’t know what I expected to be there, but it wasn’t nothing. The tower is made of two concentric cylinders, with a staircase winding between the two of them. The narrow staircase is very disorienting. Apart from the fact that the tower is leaning, the only clues you have as to how high you are and in which direction you are facing are a few small windows on the journey up. The steps seemed to go on for a lot longer than I first guessed the tower to be high, although you’re so busy concentrating on where you are stepping that things such as distance become irrelevant. You just want to get to the top. The lean of the tower makes it feel a bit like you’re drunk, swaying this way and that as you make your way around the walls, never knowing what angle you are at at any given moment. There are grooves worn into the steps where previous visitors have all tilted the same way. I wouldn’t recommend the tower to anyone with issues surrounding small spaces, climbing lots of steps or vertigo. Children under 8 are not allowed inside the tower, and once on your way up it is obvious why. When at last you come out into the open air, you are on a walkway that circles the tower. Another, shorter, narrow staircase leads you to the upper most level and the bells themselves. There are 7 bells in the bell chamber, one for each note of the musical scale. It seems almost a shame that the bells are overshadowed by the tower itself. If the campanile hadn’t been built on soft ground, they would have been the stars of the show.
At €15, the entrance fee to the tower is by far the most expensive of all the attractions in Pisa. The Italians weren’t going to miss out on making money from the one thing that makes Pisa world-famous. It’s worth paying the ticket price for the views, photo opportunities and the experience of walking up those steps. I’m sure there are gyms that would charge more than that for an equivalent work-out. The tour takes 30 minutes, and you don’t need anymore time than that to experience the tower.
The Leaning Tower is the only building in the Piazza Miracoli that you have to pay separately for. The other five are available individually or via combi-tickets. I chose to buy a ticket for all 5, which cost me €10. The whole square has a relaxed feel to it. Unlike the tower, where visits have to be regulated for safety reasons, you are free to wander amongst the other buildings at your own leisure. Your ticket is valid for the whole day, so it’s up to you in which order and when you visit everything.
Generally, I am not a fan of the art and architecture of cathedrals and churches. However, I would highly recommend that anyone who has the slightest interest in any kind of art, architecture or the creativeness of the human mind pay the two euros to visit Pisa cathedral.
Construction on the cathedral began in 1064, when Pisa was among the richest and most powerful cities of the Mediterranean. The building looks impressive from the outside, but the inside is almost too much to take in. I’d heard about the plentiful works of art here, but I was not prepared for what I would see. Every available space has been elaborately decorated with some of the most detailed and thought-through pieces I have ever seen. In other buildings it could too overpowering, but the huge cathedral structure is the perfect setting for this amazing collection. The only slight downside for me was the replacement of the candles with fake plastic ones, a common practice in churches and cathedrals nowadays. In an area of historic importance that has had so many problems with fire in the past, though, you can’t blame them for being cautious.
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the ‘Museum of the Cathedral’, is housed in a building next to the tower which was the residence of the canons of the Duomo. It is home to artwork from the cathedral (yes, even more of it!), the tower and the baptistry.
Opposite the cathedral, in a meaningful location that allows the newly baptised a straight path to their place of worship, is the Baptistry. Until it was decided that a specific structure was needed, the ceremony of baptism used to be performed wherever there was running water. The difference between baptising a baby in a local river and in this grand building seems such a huge jump. One giant room with a first-floor viewing gallery, everything in the Baptistry is focused towards the font and the centre of the action. Whilst in the baptistry, I was very lucky to witness the acoustics of the building when two singers stepped forward to try them out. I’m always envious of people who have the ability to sing well, and the talents of these two were only enhanced as their voices drifted gracefully around the interior.
The fourth major building in Piazza dei Miracoli is the Camposanto, or monumental cemetery. Originally conceived as a church, the cemetery is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil, hence the name ‘Campo Santo’ (Holy Field). The building itself was started a century later, and was only completed in 1464 due to the original architect, Giovanni di Simone, being killed in a naval battle in 1284.
The Camposanto is most famous for its frescoes, the first of which were applied in 1360 and the last about three centuries later. The purpose of the frescoes was to provide a pictorial representation of sermons. Although the artwork started to show deterioration during the first centuries of its existence, it was an incendiary bomb that caused the most damage when the entire building caught fire in 1944. A programme was started to remove the original frescoes from the walls of the camposanto and preserve them. This work led to an amazing discovery, the preliminary drawings, or ‘sinopie’ under the painted surfaces. The Museo delle Sinopie now houses these original charcoal and red chalk drawings. The images are ghost-like, mere suggestions of what was to be painted on the finished fresco. The dimmed lighting of the museum interior, installed to protect the artwork from deteriorating further, adds to the feeling that the drawings might develop in front of your eyes and become clearer on the wall. I found that it was better to stand further away from the pictures in order to see the full composition, the closer you stand the more they disappear.
Some elements are drawn darker than others. As you make your way along the gallery, a prince suddenly jumps out at you from a faded crowd scene. On another wall, a mother is breast feeding her baby clear as day, but the mother has no face.
Both the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie, as like the rest of the square, are very well organised. Directional arrows and information boards ensure that you don’t miss a thing. You’re also very trusted in these museums, there are no ropes to keep you at a safe distance from the exhibits or museum guards watching you like hawks, just a small sign here and there asking you not to touch. My whole experience of Piazza dei Miracoli was more positive than I expected it to be. I didn’t feel rushed or ushered at all, I was simply allowed to take in the history and culture of the square and its buildings at my own pace.
After three days visiting my family in Innsbruck, Austria last week, the time came for me to continue on to one of my ‘new places’. Although I have visited Italy before, my journeys there have mainly been to make use of the ski slopes in the Alps or for a change of scenery on a day trip when I lived in Austria. This would be the first time that I was visiting Italy as a proper tourist, with the purpose of sightseeing and taking in the culture.
Before I could enjoy Pisa, my final destination, I had a day of train travel ahead of me. My sister-in-law and two nieces waved me off at the train station in Kematen-in-Tirol, from where I would travel into the main train station at Innsbruck. Then came the longest part of my journey, over the border via Brenner into Italy. At Bologna I had to change trains to Florence, and then finally a regional service would take me the last leg of my journey to Pisa.
When I left Innsbruck, the weather was very similar to that of the UK the previous few weeks, Austria being the victim of a bad weather front that had attacked from the south. The sky was heavy with rain clouds that slowly soaked our clothes through, and the mountains that give Innsbruck its famous beautiful scenery were hidden behind thick clouds. I boarded the train damp, sniffling and concerned that my four days in Italy would be a washout.
As I always instruct my godson to do on our summer camping trips in Wales, I began to make ‘sunshine wishes’. Fortunately, my magic did not fail me on this occasion. Although I couldn’t shake the cold that I had caught in Austria, as we crossed the border into Italy the sun was shining.
As the train stopped briefly in each town we passed through, there were more and more mopeds parked alongside each train station, a sure sign we were heading in the right direction. Further on, vineyards lined the railway track on either side. Oh yes, we were definitely in the right place. Every available space in this region of Italy is covered in vines, and steppes are cut in to mountainsides to create even more room. The mountains are only left natural where they are simply too steep to do anything else with.
Spending a day on a train is an odd experience. Essentially, you are trapped in a metal box with a bunch of complete strangers, forming your own temporary community where you must learn to adapt and co-exist for the sake of everyone’s comfort. I’d managed to reserve a seat for my first two trains to Florence, so I had the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the landscape as we whizzed by. The only less than comfortable part of the journey was the leg from Florence to Pisa. As it was a regional train, I was unable to reserve a seat. On top of that, I’d hit Florence at rush hour and there were hundreds of commuters trying to board the same train as me. Only they weren’t carrying a 40 litre backpack and a daypack. After an hour spent holding the door open for other passengers (the only place to stand was at the end of a carriage, next to the door, and it was either hold it open or get whacked in the face every time someone walked through it) I finally arrived in Pisa. And it was soooo warm! If that is the temperature at 7pm on an October evening, the place must be an oven in the middle of summer. A short, and sweaty, walk later I arrived at my hostel, excited about the next morning and my first full day in Pisa.
I’m back! Both physically and metaphorically. I returned back home to Cardiff in the early hours of Sunday morning from my trip to Austria and Italy, and the time away had the added bonus of allowing my ribs to heal better so I’m able to work out and take part in all my favourite sports again. I’ve had two short sessions at the gym since I’ve been back, and other than a few twinges my ribs and back seem to be holding up. Ironically, it’s on the treadmill (the piece of machinery I fell on) where my ribs complain a bit. I’m not sure if it’s the motion of me running that annoys them, or if they know that the treadmill is their nemesis.
It feels so good to be working out again, although I did a fair bit of walking and cycling whilst I was away which helped me to stay in shape. I’m busy getting all my notes and photos together at the moment, and I hope to be able to share my Pisa trip with you soon.