Tour of Tuscany
Cathedrals and cities of towers in a beautiful landscape
It's one highlight after another in Tuscany: Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa with its tilted tower, cathedral and baptistry; the walled fortress town of Lucca; San Gimignano, city of towers; Siena with its Piazza del Campo; Volterra with its palaces; Florence (Firenze) with its huge cathedral and Ponte Vecchio; Roman and Etruscan archeological sites in Fiesole. And all of these wonderful places lie in the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany.
Travelogue & photos: Sandra van Berlo
When the car train arrives in Iselle di Trasquera we are in Italy. This morning we left Bern, Switzerland, where I arrived at 7 AM by night train. We cross the Alps in my Swiss friends' camper van, from Brig to Isella via the Simplon Tunnel. The difference between Switzerland (neat) and Italy (messy) is apparent at first sight.
After our descent from the Alps, we take the highway to cross the valley of the Po river and pass Milan. Today is mostly a day of travel. When we leave the highway in Fidenza, at a short distance from Parma, we take a right turn into the Apennine Mountains and have arrived in Tuscany. Now our trip has really begun.
We arrive in Berceto around dinner time and after a drink in an outdoor café we are headed for our camping site, Camping Pianelli. The grounds are beautiful, the amenities are excellent and the staff is unusually friendly. On top of that, they give us a great spot for our camper van.
The construction of Piazza dei Miracoli took centuries
We descend from the Apennine Mountains and drive south parallel to the coast. Along the road we see many marble processing factories. There are some 300 marble quarries in the region of Carrara where marble was won since Roman times. It's called the oldest industrial zone in the world that is still active.
Carrara marble has almost no spots. Michelangelo used it for his David. A little farther is the town of Forte dei Marma, which has a marble fortress.
We arrive in Pisa around lunch time. We settle at Camping Village Torre Pendente, at walking distance from the city center. I have no idea what to expect, except that there is a tilted tower. Our first destination is this tower: Torre Pendente.
Because it always stands alone in pictures, my impression was that the tilted tower was the only structure in a large space. But the opposite is true: the tower shares Piazza Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles), which is World Heritage, with other religious buildings. The tower is the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo di Pisa (Cathedral of Pisa) and stands close to it.
Piazza dei Miracoli is actually a large, walled-in lawn. Next to the Romanesque cathedral, the construction of which started in 1064, sits the also Romanesque baptistry, also part of, but not attached to the cathedral. The baptistry (1153) is the largest baptism chapel in Italy and is about as high as the tilted tower.
We also see Camposanto on the Piazza dei Miracoli, a walled cemetery. In 1278 the construction started of a large monastery in Gothic style, which was ready only in 1464. In 1594 a chapel was added, the Capella del Prozo.
The construction of Torre Pendente began in 1173. Already when the third floor was built, the tower started to tilt over. Nevertheless, in 1272 the construction of another three layers began. The tilt was compensated for by adding more mortar one one side, so the tilted tower also is crooked. In 1372 the last layer was added, built straight on top of the crooked part.
Through the ages efforts have been made to keep the tower from keeling over. In the 1990s the tilted tower was even closed for safety reasons. It was straightened a little and the foundations were reinforced, and in 2008 it was declared stable.
The Plaza of Miracles is very touristic and crowded, but at the same time it feels quiet, stately and serene, no matter how many people there are. The tourist shops around the plaza are not in-your-face. This in contrast with the situation outside the walls surrounding the plaza.
That wall is surrounded itself by touristic restaurants and at the entrance of the plaza is a market where merchants hawk their goods quite agressively.
Some of the merchants are Africans and apparently they are considered a threat, because they are constantly being chased away by the police. Merchants and police play a kind of cat-and-mouse game: they run from each other, they run after one another and curse and call one another names.
There are also Asian women with merchandise. They are not harassed by the police, but treated condescendingly and rude by the male merchants. All of this creates a threatening atmosphere around the plaza that makes visitors feel unsafe.
The restaurants around the plaza don't seem to make an effort to be tourist friendly. The service is indifferent, chaotic and sloppy. The waitress who takes our order, soon gets confused: she doesn't remember who ordered what. She sits down in despair on a seat next to us and lights a cigarette.
The waiter who brings our food, is chewing on a hamburger while serving a salad. Still, they are not unfriendly.
Camping Village Torre Pendente isn't what we expected either. Even though it's large and has all amenities, we want to leave after a short while because of the constant noise nuisance: loud techno beats, a loud, anti-social Dutch family, etc. It's better to visit Pisa on a day trip to the Plaza of Miracles. Apart from that, Pisa doesn't have to offer much.
A fortress town with red brick walls
Early next morning we take pictures of the Plaza of the Miracles, so there won't be any tourists in them. Then we leave Pisa and drive inland via Lucca to San Gimignano, a medieval town in the province of Siena.
Lucca is pretty fortress town with 17th century red brick walls. This quiet town has countless squares and pedestrian alleys in the shade of beautiful churches and palaces. The streets are built in a grid and within the fortress walls there is no traffic, so you can easily explore the town on foot.
The most remarkable building is the Romanesque church of San Michele in Foro (1070). On top of the marble façade with columns stands a huge statue: the winged archangel Michael.
The most beautiful medieval city of towers in Tuscany
We drive in a stunning Tuscan landscape of rolling hills with fields and cypresses and pass by Volterra, which we will visit later. In the distance we see the towers of San Gimignano appear every now and then, until they disappear behind the hills again.
And then, all of a sudden they appear in their full glory. Curious about what this town has to offer, we drive to our accomodation for tonight: Camping Boschetto, a camping site with all amenities near San Gimignano. We are given a spot underneath beautiful trees.
In the daytime it's quiet, but in the evening we hear music. When we go and take a look, it turns out that the bar just outside the camping site has a roof terrace where dance lessons are taking place. It looks wonderful: boys and girls dancing to Italian music at midnight, when the temperature outside is still 25 degrees centigrade.
San Gimignano is a typical medieval Tuscan city of towers on top of a hill. In the past a whooping 72 towers dominated the surrounding landscape, nowadays there are only 14 of those 12th and 13th centuries towers left.
Every guide book has a different explanation of those tall towers. According to one it was a matter of prestige to build towers as tall as possible; according to another the fortified towers served as defenses against competing families; and there is an explanation that says it had to do with the history of the town as a center of textile industry.
San Gimignano was the only place where it was known how to use saffron to dye fabrics. The length of the woven fabrics was an important factor in their price, and therefore rich enterpreneurs are supposed to have built tall towers from which they could hang large pieces of cloth to dry.
It really doesn't matter which explanation is the right one to be impressed by the city of towers. It's great to walk around here in any case.
As soon as you have entered the city within the walls via the gate, there is much to explore: the cisterna (city fountain), picturesque squares, museums, art galleries, (ice-cream) stores, city walls and numerous churches. People sit on the marble stairways, some of them look like Hemingway on one of his many trips.
There are many frescoes and of course there is great food. I have a typical Tuscan dish called Panzanella, a cold bread salad.
San Gimignano is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Tuscany, and its historic center is World Heritage. It's very crowded with tourists, but not annoying or distracting. The atmosphere is still agreeable.
Piazza del Campo is still impressive without horse races
We take a day trip to Siena from San Gimignano. You think you've seen everything and then there is another city with awesome buildings. Again and again you are surprised about so much beauty. The historic city center of Siena is also on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Siena is built on three hills and the most important highlights are close to one another in the district around the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo, one of the largest medieval squares in Europe.
Twice a year the Palio takes place on this square, a horse race of only three rounds around the Piazza. The race, in which different parts of the city compete, doesn't last longer than a minute, but that doesn't diminish the honor of winning the palio (banner).
A funny aspect of the race is that bribing is allowed and because of the negotiations that go on, the start of the Palio is usually delayed.
Once the race has begun, everything is allowed: cutting off one another, hitting others with whips. The first horse to cross the finish line wins, whether it is still carrying its rider or not...
Piazza del Campo is still impressive without horse races. On one side of the plaza, which is surrounded by medieval streets, are bars, cafés and restaurants, on the other side are historic buildings like the Gothic Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) with its 100 meters high bell tower Torre del Mangia.
Of course Siena also has a cathedral. It is one of the largest in Italy. The construction of Duomo di Siena started in 1215 and only in 1380 the lavishly decorated façade was finished.
The cathedral has a huge bell tower, but the baptistry is not a separate building and lies a little lower. The entrance of the Duomo has many interesting details and copies of statues. The originals are in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
The interior of the cathedral is all marble, from the black-and-white striped walls and columns to the pulpit, which is supported by lions and made of Carrara marble, and the huge mosaics floor which took two centuries to finish.
Siena is a great place to be. It has nice stores and good food and drinks. I have a delicious fish speciality. With the accompanying wine, my day is perfect.
It must be wonderful to study in Siena, surrounded by all this beauty. Siena is famous for its university which dates from 1203 (it is the third university city in Tuscany) and the university buildings are also stunning.
The Etruscans already treated alabaster here
We take another day trip from San Gimignano to Volterra, which sits on a plateau with a great view of the surrounding hills. Volterra is pretty, with its Romanesque cathedral, Roman amphitheatre and palaces on the Piazza San Giovanni. But it's a small town and it doesn't take much time to visit.
Volterra is mainly famous for its alabaster, which is won in caves in the surroundings and was already treated by the Etruscans. There are lots of stores that carry alabaster objects. It's amazing to see what it is used for: bowls, lamp shades and sculptures.
We visit Palazzo Viti, a Renaissance palace which is still privately owned, but partly open to the public. Visconti used the palazzo as a backdrop for his 1964 movie Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa with Claudia Cardinale. You get a voucher with your ticket, which can be used to order a drink in the wine cellar of the palace.
The Palazzo Viti wine cellar is a 16th century building with Etruscan and Roman water sources. It serves local specialities.
We drink a glass of white wine. The walls of the cellar are covered with old newspaper clippings about the former Italian royal family.
In the evening we have dinner outside in a picturesque street; again I have a delicious fish speciality and drink wonderful white wine.
Everything about the 91 meters tall cathedral of Florence is huge
We leave San Gimignano and are headed for Firenze (Florence). The closer we get to Firenze, the busier traffic gets. We drive up a mountain to Fiesole. Nearby is Camping Panoramico, a terrific camping site which meanders down a slope. You can look for a spot on one of the winding roads.
We pick a beautiful spot. I sit down with a book, enjoy the sun, the surroundings and the peace and quiet. I already look back on a wonderful vacation, and I even haven't seen Firenze yet!
On this camping site it isn't quiet at night either. When we go out to find the source of the noise, it turns out that the successor of the Communist Party has a party in a nearby village.
We can watch everything from the camping site: from the hill we see the village square, illuminated with lamps and used as a party tent.
Accompanied by the sounds of Italian popular music, well-dressed villagers (young and old) amuse themselves until late at night.
From the center of the camping site you can see Firenze in the distance, idyllically illuminated. Around midnight it's still 25 degrees centigrade. The wonderful temperature tempts you to sit on a wall all night long and enjoy the view. It is truly extraordinarily beautiful.
The next morning I walk a little less than two kilometers downhill to the village of Fiesole, where I take the bus to Firenze, the cradle of the Renaissance. In Firenze I think I am walking towards the city center, but it turns out that I'm walking away from it.
I don't understand what's so beautiful about Firenze, until a side street takes me all of a sudden (well, "all of a sudden": after asking three times for directions) to a spot where I can see part of a huge construction.
Gosh, what is this? A beautiful green, pink and white marble building, with gilded doors: I have to catch my breath. After having recovered from the shock, I walk on and notice that I am looking at the Duomo (cathedral) di Firenze, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Only superlatives apply to the cathedral: it's huge, incredibly beautiful, enormously impressive, extremely colorful. The construction of this 153 meters long and 91 meters high behemoth, which has a dome with a 45 meters diameter, took centuries.
Opposite the cathedral is also the Battistero San Giovanni, a huge baptistry with three large bronze doors. And next to the cathedral is the campanile (bell tower), with its 85 meters still smaller than the cathedral itself.
The long line at the entrance discourages me from visiting the cathedral and I keep walking. The rest of the city center is also wonderful: the Piazza della Signoria with the city hall Palazzo Vecchio (also: Palazzo della Signoria) and the Palazzo degli Uffizi, which houses a museum with a large collection of stunningly beautiful Italian Renaissance paintings.
There is a replica of Michelangelo's David on Piazza della Signoria (the original is in the Galleria dell'Academia), and also a Neptune fountain, an equestrian statue of Cosimo I de'Medici and a series of statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi.
There are many cafés and restaurants on Piazza della Signoria, but prices are ridiculously high, as we find out too late.
We walk to the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). On the way we pass all kinds of restaurants and other places that serve food and they all look incredible: windows with Italian dishes and ice-cream stores with tall towers of ice cream, decorated with the fruits the ice cream is made with.
Lemon ice cream is garnished with pretty, curled slices of lemon. There are posh and expensive stores. We confine ourselves to ice cream and an Italian salad.
Ponte Vecchio is the oldest still existing bridge in the city. It was built in 1345 to replace a wooden bridge dating from Roman times, which was destroyed in a flood. It is the only bridge over the Arno river that wasn't blown up during WWII.
There were always businesses on the bridge, but the butchers, tanners and smiths who had their workshops here (and who used the river to get rid of their trash) were removed in 1539 because they caused too much stench and noise. The workshops were converted and then rent out to gold- and silversmiths.
But apparently the bridge still wasn't neat enough for the De'Medici family, so in 1565 they commissioned a Corridoio built over the bridge, a corridor through which they could walk from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno without having to mingle with ordinary folks.
The stores on and partly over the bridge still sell new and antique jewelry. Some of the oldest workshops have an addition in the back, supported by wooden stays.
The bridge is very photogenic because of its reflection and that of the pastel-colored houses in the river. The surroundings of the bridge are also worthwhile.
Roman and Etruscan archeological sites
Tonight I will take the train back to The Netherlands. We decide to stay in Fiesole until then. We start with a cup of coffee in the local bar. The owner doesn't approve of us just having coffee. He won't let us go before I've had one of his delicious ice creams.
He lets us taste every flavor, so we can make a good choice. When we finally decide, he is very happy.
We visit an archeological site with remains of a Roman amphitheatre and Roman baths. There are also remains of an Etruscan wall and temple. And then there is the Museo Faesulanum, which has a collection of ceramics, bronze statues and bronze jewelry from the Bronze Age.
It is a small site, which fits the size of Fiesole. It is also located beautifully in the Tuscan landscape. It's cool and quiet here. A worthy conclusion of a wonderful vacation. It's time to take the bus to Firenze, where I take the train to Milan, where it connects to the international train to The Netherlands.