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Visiting Italy - Rome to Venice & Back - Part 2
Back in 1997 my Aunt Mary took my sister Nanci and I on the trip of a lifetime to Italy. We were very excited about this as both our father and our maternal grandparents came from this beautiful country, and we had always wanted to visit. This hub is a continuation of Visiting Italy - Rome to Venice & Back - Part 1.
Heading For Pisa - With Stops In Between
6AM came very quickly the next day, but we rolled ourselves out of bed, each of us trying to get our fair time in the small bathroom before heading down for breakfast. This can prove to be quite a feat considering we were three ladies, but we quickly learned how to manage our time. Our bags were packed and sitting outside our door so that the hotel staff could pick them up and ensure they were loaded back onto the bus.
So in record time, and on our first morning where we would be leaving one place to go to another, we made our way down to the breakfast room, picked up some juice, a croissant, maybe a yogourt or some fruit and a coffee. And oh! - the coffee. This was a bit of a cultural shock -at least for me, who basically drinks coffee with my cream. If you are not used to Espresso, well you can have "Americano" coffee. Except that it was not like any American/Canadian coffee I have ever tasted. Maybe, after you add some more hot water, or extra cream they say, but no, not even then! So for the first day or so I completely stayed away from it until I discovered Cafe Latte. Now this was right up my alley.
Making our way outside to the bus, of course we were early because we remembered the warning "they can only wait so long, and then they will be off on their way, and you might be left behind". This was all the encouragement we needed to make haste, and upon arrival at the door we were happy to see our luggage being loaded into the compartment under the bus. So far, so good. Now all we had to do was find a seat, sit back, relax and maybe catch up on a wink or two.
Our tour guide, who would be with us on the entire road trip was named Nicoletta. We had met her at the welcome dinner the night before and were already used to her. Buongiornos were said all around! But then this morning we found out that the bus driver who had started out with us had some kind of family emergency, so we were now being introduced to a new fellow named Carlo. Carlo was very natty in his dress, especially with his sweater slung over his back and the sleeves tied across his chest. We also quickly realized as the day went by that he had a proclivity for admiring and flirting with the ladies on board. I could see where this was going. But in reality no real harm was done and I will say right here that both of these people were the best, Nicolletta was very informative and we always felt safe on this trip with Carlo at the wheel.
Today we are heading for Pisa, but on our way we will be making a stop just up the coast from Rome to tour the ruins of Ostia Antica. Ostia was the Harbour City for Ancient Rome, and originally sat at the mouth of the Tiber River. The site is actually no longer on the coast due to sediments changing the local topography. It is now nearer the modern town of Ostia Lido in the Commune of Rome. The belief is that Ostia Antica was originally founded for the sole purpose of military defense since Rome was easily accessible through the mouth of the Tiber River.
Eventually though it became a very important commercial port with a lot of supplies such as grains making their way through to Rome. Getting off the bus we were met by another tour guide as each place has its own guide to show you around, with Nicolleta simply being the one to accompany us on the whole tour and give us a brief history before we arrived at appointed places. For the next hour or so we walked through the ruins getting a history of what took place here. Strolling along you could see the remains of what looked like stalls, or store fronts. In front of these stalls were mosaics in the ground that were in amazingly good shape. These mosaics told the story of the job of each shopkeeper; i.e. someone who fixes sails on a ship.
As we moved along we came across what they referred to as the "latrinas" a pretty good sized square area with seats all around and troughs underneath which would have carried water. I guess this was pretty much a social function in those days!! Nothing doing but a group of fellas from Indiana had to sit down on these so we could take their photo. There they sit, elbow on their knee, chin resting on their hand in the style of "The Thinker".
Before we left Ostia we would learn that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was entirely built from material originally belonging to Ostia.
Back on the bus once again we would be in for our first long journey as we made our way through the rural landscape of Italy, through Umbria, the Tuscan countryside and on into Pisa. We had time now to lay our heads back and catch whatever extra sleep we could and I am certain most of us did exactly that. Nicoletta gave us a brief respite from our history lessons, Carlo drove on in a fashion that never made us feel the least bit threatened, while soft music came through the speakers lulling us into a very peaceful state.
As we were entering the town of Pisa I think we were all waiting with great expectation to get our first glimpse of the tower. All of a sudden it came into view. Here I have to be honest and say that this was not one of my favourite highlights. Certainly it is something to see, and I guess the fact that generations have been trying off and on to correct this bit of architecture lends a certain amount of appeal. You hear so much about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, about how it was built on unstable subsoil and started leaning almost immediately. Through centuries and in and amongst many battles between the Pisans and other areas of Italy, efforts were made to try to correct this faulty construction.
One architect actually built higher floors, with one side taller than the other to try to compensate for the lean. This only mde it lean in the other direction. My aunt told us that when she visited as a young girl she was able to go up all the way to the top, but I don't believe this is allowed any more. At the time we were there the tower was undergoing gradual surface restoration and was indeed surrounded by scaffolding, cordoned off so we could not get really close to it. But we wandered around the Piazza dei Marcoli and took in the beautiful architecture of the Cathedral itself and the Baptistry
Killing The Afternoon
After we had toured the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the Tower we had time before we were to meet at the bus to head for our night's hotel. Auntie Mary suggested that we should go and grab a piece of pizza as she remembered having some of the best here from years ago.
We walked up and down the little shops looking for what she thought looked good and then settled on a nice thick square in the fashion that she always made at home - no Margherita Pizza for us here - none of that thin crust stuff. And for some reason my funnybone was all of a sudden tickled - thinking of eating pizza in Pisa.
Later on after dinner at the hotel, we wandered out once more and came across some other ladies on our tour. They invited us to sit down and have a coffee with them spending half an hour or so before it was time to head back to the hotel. We want to get a good night's sleep tonight to be ready once again at 6AM in the morning heading our for our next destination.
Today we had a lot on our plate and it was promising to be one we would enjoy very much. So it was with great anticipation that we three boarded the bus early in the morning with our traveling companions. Besides the pros and cons that I mentioned earlier in this hub there is something else that we have to do with regards to traveling this way and that is that each day you must rotate from your seat, moving two seats forward on the right hand side of the bus, and therefore two seats back on the left hand side of the bus. You can decide what category this fits into, but it does give everyone the chance to have the front row seat looking out at the spectacular scenery unfolding ahead of you. I quickly decided that it was in the "pro" category and today would be our day to sit in front right, unimpeded by anyone in front of us. Now obviously the three of us couldn't sit in the same seat and so far Aunt Mary had been changing seats, sitting one day with me and one day with Nanci. This morning she insisted we both sit together in the front.
Our first destination today is San Gimignano and as we motored along we noticed that the countryside was changing slightly from the day before. Where through the central part of Tuscany, it was more wide open, today we were noticing more trees and along with that some rolling vineyards. All the while Nicoletta was busy giving us our history lesson about the town we were about to see. San Gimignano is a medieval town founded by the Etruscans in the 3rd century BC. Etruscans were an ancient civilization enduring from an unknown prehistoric time prior to the Romans, and they were eventually assimilated into an Italic Rome in the Roman Republic. Then in the middle ages, San Gimignano became a stopping point for pilgrims heading to Rome and the Vatican.
One of the things that San Gimignano is noted for is the number of towers that it still has standing - fourteen in all, whereas other similar towns had lost many of their towers during various skirmishes. Originally I believe it had a total of seventeen towers giving the town a vantage point from every different angle on the top of the hill. So this is the first thing you notice as you approach the town on the road that winds back and forth on the way up the hill to its main gates. Off the bus once again we are given last minute instructions on how long we have in this town and where to come back to for the bus. And on this day I noted that Carlo was taking extra time with his hand downs, off the steps of the bus, with the ladies. When I got there it seemed he held my hand just a tad too long and said with a question "you like me Leenda?" Here we go again! I chose not to answer and just smiled at him.
Hurrying up the last hill from the parking area we entered through the main gate to see a long narrow street before us slanting up toward the main square. No vehicles allowed on this stretch except for early morning deliveries so we were free to wander without the worry of being hit by a car or those crazy folks on scooters. Strolling along the cobblestone street we took notice of the shops, pasticciarias and gelato places. Of particular beauty were the shops that had hung their colourful pottery dishes on the outside walls giving you a preview of what was inside. I loved these dishes in beautiful Mediterranean hues of bright turquoise, azure blue, sunflower yellow and every other bright colour that you can imagine. Outside one of the deli shops was a stuffed wild board, with more of his kind inside made up into wonderful cacciatore!
Something Never To Do In Italy - Nor Anywhere Else For That Matter
On the way back down the street toward the main gate we decided it was time for a bathroom break and knew we had seen a sign somewhere along the way. We had been warned that once outside Rome you never knew what kind of facilities you would find. Having heard of the dreaded hole in the ground, we readied ourselves to face whatever was at the end of the lane where the arrow pointed.
Sure enough we entered into a little room with four cubicles and a nice little Italian man standing there with mop, bucket and spray cleaner in hand, along with a wicker basket sitting on a table where you could deposit a coin for the pleasure of it all. He was nicely directing traffic, so it was that when my turn came I steeled myself for what was on the other side of the door. If ever there was a time that I wished I was a man, this was it! Imagine my surprise when I was confronted with a totally tiled space, ceilings, walls, and floors - yes with a drain covered hole in the centre of the cubicle. Really, what was I expecting? A hole dug in dirt?? Ceramic tile and everything was clean and sparkling. But as I crouched I still wished I was a man. Once outside of the stall, the gentleman followed his routine of going in quickly, cleaning and spraying everything up and ushering in the next person. Then all Hell broke loose!!
While my aunt and I were waiting for Nanci we noticed another tourist there, a German lady who did not have change, holding a 5 lire note in her hand. She didn't speak Italian and she didn't know what to do; the gentleman was in a stall doing his cleaning thing, and so my aunt thinking she was helping made change for her by by putting her hand in the man's cash basket!! Of course right at that moment the man came out of a stall and upon seeing her making change started yelling and screaming in Italian with my aunt all the while trying to explain back in Italian that she was only making change for the other lady. Nothing doing, he was angry and of course in retrospect we could probably see why.
Hearing all the ruckus, Nanci finally appeared and we made a hasty retreat, with the German lady running along beside us apologizing all along the way for the touble she had got us into. We could still hear him hollering as we neared the corner of the main street. It was a source of amusement for us over the next few days. Everytime we thought of it we three would burst out laughing, but we were careful not to get into that kind of predicament again.
Please check out part 3 in this series by the same name to read about Siena and Chianti