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PISA and FLORENCE

Sunday May 18, 2008
After our last delicious breakfast at the hotel, we said goodbye to our concierge, Luciano and were ready to head out for the drive to Florence, including a short stopover in Pisa on the way. With Perky at the helm, we were excited to head out into the countryside!

After our nice and last breakfast in Hotel Vesuvio, we were ready to go with Perky to Florence in his car. The morning began with rain and it was drizzling on us as we packed his small Lancia with all of our luggage while double parked down from the hotel. Some of our luggage had to sit in the backseat with me, but I was comfortable. Alan sat up front with Perky and acted as navigator using the map we had. We drove for two hours in a driving rain, but traffic wasn’t horrible. We were a bit confused about the location of Pisa and talked about it being a short detour on the train from Rapallo to Flaorence, or was it on the way to Milan?

Just after we had talked about it we came to the exit for Pisa and made the quick decision to veer off and go see it, not knowing if it would rain or not. During the ten minute ride off the highway to the town, the clouds parted and it became quite pleasant. We spent about an hour and a half there and were really glad we did.

The leaning tower is truly a marvel of beautiful architecture; and an incredible lean that can only be explained by damage from the elements over six centuries. We begin to “lean” well before a century, so it is understandable! The cathedral and other buildings are on a huge plaza; all of the architecture is amazing. We played tourist and did our classic poses. The hawking of souveniers by people who appear to be from Morocco taints the ambience, but they are not as overbearing as we’ve experienced in Latin America.

We felt relaxed in Pisa and in no hurry as we left town, so we stopped for a delicious gelato. The price of 150 Euros includes two dips and one has no choice as the price is the same for one or two dips. So far, my favorite flavors have been the rich raspberry or strawberry. On the road again, the weather had cleared for the hour trip to Florence through agriculturas areas of rice, grapes and citrus.

A car is definitely a liability in Florence as there is minimal space in which to park. This ancient city is full of narrow streets, alleyways, angles and one-ways! With some trouble we found the train station and then circled a few times to finally locate our hotel, The Basilea. Bob Perkins, as always, is a “fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants” traveler and didn’t know where he would stay tonight. His car fit right into the one spot reserved for hotel guests, temporarily and we went in to get some advice on parking.

Our hotel clerk told him the options: in the blue line spaces by the train station for free or in various public spots for a fee. The hotel also has a valet service with a garage for 30 Euros for 24 hours. Although a single room was available for the night, Bob kind of wanted to drive to the Tuscany Region and find a Bed and Breakfast Inn. We decided that we would wait for him to try his luck at finding a parking spot, and one way or another, we would then walk the walking tour of Florence to the Ponte Vecchio. At some point, he would be on his way to “wherever.”

Using our Rick Steves guide (or Steve Ricks as some call him!), we easily found our way through the heart of Florence, marveling at the dome at the “Duomo” and I enjoyed the colorful windows in shops. The gelato shops our actually quite eye-catching as it appears they try to outdo each other to attract business by decorating the tops of the large lumps of gelato in their cooler cases right inside the open doorways. Each flavor is decorated with a piece of the fruit that flavors it or something else that symbolizes the floavor, nuts, chocolate, etc. We took our share of gelato display photos, as well. So much so, that Bob had run out of memory. At the first chance we found a camera store with reasonable prices he had his photos downloaded on a DVD and then could start fresh with plenty of space for more! Nearby the camera shop, we passed the ubiquitous McDonalds and I just had to have a shot of the sign in from, "I'm lovin'it!"

We saw the fake statue of the David in the Plaza Vecchio and continued on to the Arno river. Looking over its side, we got a great view of the bridge and its “prince’s passageway” which in less secure times allowed city leaders to securely pass from the Veccho Palace and Uffizi to the Pitti Palace. We crossed the bridge with the hoards of Sunday evening strollers and saw the huge Pitti Palace. By now our gelato had worn off and we were more than ready to eat.

We strolled back across the bridge in the direction of our hotel and found the myriad of restaurant choices in the Piazza della Signoria. We were close to “starving” and the first maitre de’ that invited us in, was our choice of eatery! We all had delicious meals, actually and a glass of wine. The tables were placed very close together and a woman sitting by herself next to us struck up a conversation with Perky. It turns out she gave us her life history and had retired as a nurse from a career with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Again, a “small world” experience; she is now living in Irving Park, IL! She was there on a hiking tour and as we were leaving, she hit on Perky and toldhim if he ever needs a hiking partner, just find “Linda from Irving Park.” As we strolled away across the plaza, I kept my arm around Perky to make her jealous!

Well, back at Hotel Basilea, Perk had to make a decision: find a place to keep the car at a reasonable price and stay the night OR head off to Tuscany and hope to find a place to stay the night. The hotel clerk was very helpful and did make a couple of phone calls for him, but had no luck finding a place that was available. We said our good bys and know he will be fine no matter what he ends up doing!

Monday May 19, 2008
Most all major museums are closed on Monday, EXCEPT the Duomo; so Alan and I took our time and lingered over breakfast. By now, we are starting to feel comfortable finding our way around, and as we left the hotel it was overcast. The line to enter the Dome for the 438 step climb was manageable; and although both of us are slightly under the weather with our colds, we knew we had to do it. We took a quick breather after each set of 100 steps, but at 200 we reached a balcony around the entire dome with a fabulous view down into the church. Now we thought that maybe the total of 400 was approximately 200 up and 200 down, but no such luck! As we began again, the steps took us up to the second viewing balcony, much higher up into the dome. Just before we finished all 438 steps, there were about 20 very narrow and very deep steps that were killers! However, it was well worth it to reach the top and the outside observation deck where we had a grand view of all of Florence! The air felt fresh, but a slight mist was developing. We stayed at the very top about 20 minutes and took some great photos. On the way down, a great downpour began which set the tone for the rest of the day! Umbrellas were coming out everywhere and hawkers were selling then, first offering them for 10 Euros down from 25! We refused to give in to those prices. On the way back to our hotel, we discovered “Sabrina,” a delightful little shop that offered pizza, focaccia and all manner of pastries for carry out or for eating there. It is close to our hotel and our feet needed to rest, so we hared an artichoke/tomato focaccia and tried a lemon pastry. Made of multiple layers of filo dough, yet shaped like a “horn,” it was filled with the most delicious lemon crème. I marveled at how the filo kept so crisp in a simple showcase on this very humid day! The downpour continued all afternoon, but it didn’t bother us as we really needed to warm up, get dry and rest to recover from this virus that is giving us both some serious coughing. We had checked the hours as we passed a nice-looking restaurant,
i’ Toscana, and knew we had to wait until 6:30. My choice of book for this trip, “The DaVinci Code,” is perfect in this atmosphere and I enjoyed the afternoon reading and falling in and out of sleep. Alan got some power sleeping in too, as well as checking email down in the lobby where the only access is.

Our experience with garlic bread at i’ Toscana is worth mentioning. Not like anything we have had at home, the rustic bread came toasted with a bit of olive oil accompanied by 3 large fresh garlic cloves. We figured we had to slice them and put them on top of the warm bread, so we did. It was a very strong shot of garlic and we know definitely good for what ails us! I had fresh sautéed spinach laced with garlic and fried chicken, which was delicious with fresh lemon squeezed on top. Alan very much enjoyed his pork loin and tasty white beans.

Day 7-Tuesday, May 20 A good night’s sleep last night was what we needed for our day of museum vists and the walking tour of Florence today. We had followed the “word to the wise” in the guidebooks and had our reservations for the museums, our first one being at 8:30 AM! We had checked out the location yesterday; and we were glad because it was rain and drizzle the whole way! The Accademia, which houses Michaelangelo’s David, is a very plain looking building which you would never notice from the outside. Inside, however, it comes alive with sculpture, paintings and sweeping arches that can’t be imagined without seeing them. Of course, seeing the David is the crowning glory and the word “amazing” really doesn’t do it justice. We viewed its every angle for about a half hour and there was a wonderful graphic screen provided by Stanford University in which we could view the aspects of the sculpture and manipulate angle and lighting of the images to see them better. I found it interesting that on the back of the David, lights shown in my eye so that I couldn’t see well without shading them. It’s just an interesting quirk that I noticed! We explored around the museum for another hour, seeing amazing sculptures and some paintings, which shall remain nameless! I was quite happy to see an incredible embroidery done in the 1400’s of the Last Supper: amazingly detailed work and well preserved! Wandering, we were glad we had a map, but encountered some confusion anyway. We were trying to find the San Lorenzo Market, we were told, was an easier place in which to bargain and had good eateries. First we came to the Orsanmichele church and knew we were close to the Straw Market. Walking through there, we were overwhelmed with the amount of leather products. We felt a sheepskin jacket that was “butter soft” and I have never seem so many colors of leather purses. As we were ready to leave, we encountered the “porcilino,” a bronze statue of a wild boar. His nose is brightly polished from people rubbing it and giving him a coin to “ensure their return to Florence.” When we arrived at Plaza Vecchio, we took note of the replica of David that is there where the original once stood and we ask directions to the San Lorenzo Market. It is back toward our hotel and that was good as we were beginning to drag again. On our way, we were intrigued by a huge wheel of parmesan cheese in the doorway of a restaurant. It was covered by a piece of paper to protect it from the humidity, but a waitress stopped by and invited us to help ourselves to a bit with the forks that were placed inside. That cinched it; we wanted to return here for dinner. We found the Market and by now it was raining again, so we scooted through it rather quickly, finding the prices rather steep. As you know, the dollar is not doing well at all these days on the world market! We decided to swing by Sabrina’s again for another cream cone to tide us over until after our Gallery visit at 4:30 and then dinner. Today we chose coffee cream and boy, was it delicious. Back in the room we took off the dank clothes and warmed up, reading and sleeping. At 4 PM, we jumped to our feet and headed to our 4:30 reservation at the Uffizi Gallery close to Ponte Vecchio. According to Rick Steves, it is a small gallery but the BEST! We saw works from the Florentine Middle Ages to the Renaissance on to the Baroque eras. Following Steves’ suggested list of essential stops we made the rounds. My favorite was probably the Botecelli room filled with masterpieces, as well as the view of the Ponte Vecchio through the window at the end of the gallery, with the sun finally shining on the Arno River. Our feet hurt and our brains could absorb no more, so we traced our steps and set our sights for the round of parmesan to guide us to our choice of restaurant from earlier in the day. It was a good choice as I had a marvelous tagliatelle with broccoli, chicken and a light tomato cream sauce. Alan had a delicious sampler plate of pork and sausages and we shared probably the best plate of asparagus I have ever had in my life! It had to be the broiled cheese layered over the top. Are you wondering now, is this a travelogue or a food tour of Italy? Back in the hotel lobby, we checked email and Alan spent more time than I as I was ready to climb upstairs and read before setting our alarm for an early leave-taking to Milan in the morning. Good night!

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