18. Pisa, Easter and Leaving Florence


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May 1st, 2011
18. Pisa, Easter and Leaving Florence


It’s the weekend, so we take the day off and jump on the train to Pisa,  just one hour away – to visit the Leaning Tower with its cathedral. It turns out we are very fortunate in our timing – last spring, we would have seen the Tower plus scaffolding and earthworks at the base, during the last touches to a long project of reinforcement and restoration.

The town is genteel, pretty and serene compared to Florence, with less frequent gelaterias. A 20 minute walk from the station takes you over the Arno river, and you soon come to the grand square with the cathedral, its baptistery and the famous TOWER. At which point the gelaterias multiply. The space is partly enclosed by the old city walls (wonder why they built the cathedral so close?) and a large grassy space opens up around it allowing a great view. The space is lined with souvenir-sellers. In the old days was this ground ever a graveyard….?

Pisa Cathedral with its famous wonky Tower

The cathedral itself is much larger and more grand than its leaning tower, which is still a GOBSMACK although one has seen hundreds of pictures and caricatures of it over the years. It sure does lean!! One feels pretty uncomfortable on the overhanging side. Curiously, the tower started leaning right from the start, when only one-third built. But they carried on building it anyway… hmm..

Restored and reinforced Tower. Visitors are now allowed to climb to the top.

The most amusing part of a visit to the Leaning Tower is watching all the people pose for those ‘I’m holding up the tower’ photographs. Absolutely every single visitor does it.  People ask us to take their pics doing it too…. James obliges.. We refrain until almost time to go, then I decide that one of us just has to. Result not v. good but, for the record – I did it!!! I held up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Look Mom, I'm holding up the Tower

Tourists posing for 'the shot'. Note city walls in background.

A pleasant day, shopping for supper on the way home. By this time, we have graduated from horrible cheapo wine to the more expensive stuff, in a desperate bid to find something drinkable.

Florentine Graffitti artist celebrates Easter


Witty Florentine graffitti artist plays with traffic signs

On Easter Sunday there was an exploding ox cart procession through the city, but we missed it due to misinformation about times. Oh well, the Florentines will be doing it again next Easter Sunday. The flower-garlanded oxen are led away before the cart explodes (with fireworks). Strange habits. We saw it on TV later that day, it’s all about some long-ago crusader victory in the state-city of Florence but is more like a Rite of Spring actually, because if the ceremony goes well it is supposed to bring good harvests etc..

Meanwhile the shops are all crammed with tempting chocolate easter eggs in all shapes and sizes – mostly large sizes. Also chocolate bunnies and lambs. Even the antique shops have put their clockwork eggs and porcelain egg-cups in their windows. There is the Lindt boutique on the piazza del Duomo which we did NOT go into. But I did take a picture..

1 metre high Easter Bunnies in the Lindt shop

Easter Monday:
It’s a cloudy day for once. Reading in the english-language Firenze newspaper (3 weeks after arriving I discovered you can pick one up free at various touristy places, and in English/Irish type pubs) I find that there is an unsuspected side to the piazza Michelangelo on the hill – on the east side of the hill grows a semi-secret iris garden – the Giardino del’Iris. It’s only open to the public in April and May each year. It is a place where prize irises are grown in an ongoing annual competition. International iris-fanciers and breeders compete by placing their prize bulbs in small numbered plots on this hillside, which is an old terraced olive orchard. Every year when the bulbs flower, the best varieties are judged. One can purchase the bulbs too.

The Giardino dell'Iris in its olive grove, with iris-fanciers

Off I rush, leaving James to toil in the BatCave. I walk over the Arno on ‘our’ bridge and up the hill. I am rewarded with a heavenly couple of hours wandering about this huge terraced garden, among the olive trees, with views over the river. The iris is the city’s official symbol. Not being an iris-fancier, I never knew that these flowers could come in so many colours. Some are still only at bud stage, some early ones are already past their prime. Did you know that iris bulbs in their dried form are called Orris-root? Used for centuries medicinally and as a perfume base (and in gin, apparently).

That’s enough irises. But there were many more, I can add to the picture gallery maybe.

On the way back it is drizzling lightly, but I am captivated once more by an unexpected open air concert at the base of the hill, in front of a beautiful arched grotto, on the pedestrian ramps leading up to the Michelangelo terrace. It’s a Florentine choral group, singing operatic choruses and folk-songs for passers-by. They even have a guy dressed up as a blacksmith, with a little anvil which he dings in time to the music as they sing Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”. Wonderful! I guess this must be part of the city’s Easter celebrations. What a wonderful day: flowers and music in one unexpected free gift of an afternoon!

Free choral concert in the drizzle. Note 'blacksmith' dinging his anvil during the chorus!

Last day in Florence
Sunny morning, out to visit the Santa Croce cathedral, having lived next door to it all this time. Magnificent. There is more history and art here than even the grand Duomo. Here are the elaborate, sculpture-decorated tombs of Machiavelli, of Gallileo, Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri and others who I guess we should know of but don’t. Some much much earlier tombs are slabs of carved marble inlaid into the floor and worn by centuries of shuffling feet; knights of Malta and noble crusaders with their skull-and-crossbones motifs.

The tomb of the most famous of all Florentine renaissance artists, Michelangelo

Beautiful, beautiful soaring spaces, the cathedral is huge. Attached is an abbey; cloisters and refectories of an old convent, now a museum. All of this was seriously damaged by a huge flood when the river burst its banks in the sixties – there are photographs of the incredible damage and the mud-stained water levels at head-height. It all looks like the aftermath of a tsunami. The restorations and repairs took years and millions of bucks. Today everything is more or less back as it used to be, and in the convent section there is a lovely square-sided cloister designed by Brunelleschi (he of the Duomo). A criss-cross path divides the courtyard into four with a well in the centre – each quarter has a bed of roses – one white bed, one yellow, one red and one pink, and each type has its own divine perfume. I’d really love to know what varieties they are, as their heavenly scents really could be bottled. (Eau de Nun? – Nunknown? ok stop right there.)

The cloister by Brunelleschi at Santa Croce, with heaven-scent roses

Another trophy for my knocker collection: this was inside the cathedral, between the convent and the church

The Santa Croce entrance ticket includes a visit to the nearby ‘Casa Buonarotti’ (Michelangelo’s surname was Buonarotti). The family’s house was bequeathed to the city of Florence together with its art and sculpture collections. On the ground floor are pen and ink sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, small, exquisite things on parchment and thick linen paper. The Michelangelo sketches are rarest of the rare, as apparently he was a perfectionist and would always destroy his working drawings once a piece or painting was finished.
There are 3 floors of art and sculpture housed in the small rooms decorated by his family in honour of their famous ancestor. On one wall is a set of stunning, stunning etchings, a group of 6 ‘prophets and oracles’. I want them!!! I want them!!
When we come out, it’s raining… so no ice cream today, it’s too cold.  time to leave Florence perhaps!!

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