Pisa and Lucca

Monday 8th May 2006, Chiavari, Italian Riviera
Before moving on from our stunningly well equipped campsite (10 euros a night including electricity) we walked down into the little town of Diano Marina and along the sea front with its pretty gardens and shady palm trees. The town was quiet and peaceful mid-morning with people chatting in the street, shop keepers enjoying the sunshine outside as they waited for customers or chatting with each other over a cigarette and a cool drink outside one of the neighbouring bars. The atmosphere seemed so different from France. This was an ordinary little seaside town with many pleasant but inexpensive hotels. It was spotlessly clean, and we never saw so much as a glimpse of dog fouling anywhere. The houses were rendered in pale orange or lemon with dark green shutters. The churches were likewise stuccoed and there was extensive and skilful use of "trompe l'oeil" to create the impression of stonework, carving, recesses and statues. This we have found to be common in all the places we have passed through today.

The church in Diano Marina

We soon homed in on the Biblioteca Civica and municipal buildings in a pretty residence with painted and decorated ceilings standing in shady gardens near the seafront. Here we discovered enough pidgin Italian (basically any remotely similar word we could think of in French or Spanish pronounced with what we fondly believed might be an Italian accent) to ask if we could use the internet and how much would it cost us. We were booked in, our ID checked and we were set loose on the computers with screen savers of beautiful Italian sculptures. For once our blog loaded really quickly and we even had enough time left to sort through our email before the building was closed for a two hour lunch break. We noticed that the library was well staffed but had hardly any customers except for us. The children's library seemed very friendly, well equipped and a good place for people like us to start learning Italian from the picture books!

Classical décor in the public library, Diano Marina

At last we felt we could start enjoying pasta, having avoided it in France, waiting for the authentic experience. We found an inexpensive little place in the pedestrianised area and put our newly discovered language skills to use in selecting and ordering a couple of different pastas, beer and fizzy water. We were quite surprised when we actually got exactly what we had ordered!

Jill was terrified at the idea of driving through Genoa so having followed the coastal route most of the way, we turned off onto the motorway at Varazze. From here we drove a switchback route of bends, curves, tunnels and viaducts, criss-crossing lanes as we avoided being channelled off to Milan or Turin. In Britain we just don't know what European motorways can be like and fail to appreciate how fortunate we are with road signing, a decent hard shoulder and long turn-ons. Here there are none of these. Exiting from a kilometre-long tunnel, forced along at up to 110 km an hour, there may well be an immediate exit with only a very short turn off! Italian motorways do not appear to have a hard shoulder and we passed a lorry broken down in one of the tunnels!

Eventually we turned off and made the steep descent down to sea level at Recco and continued along the coast road hoping to find a camp site. However, camping cars just don't seem to make it here. The roads are narrow and twisting, corkscrewing their way up and down the steep cliff face where the mountains reach right down to the sea. Only at little coves is there space for small seaside settlements. Higher up the roads are just grooves in the hillside, frequently passing through tunnels to reach the far side of the rocks. We would never have brought Modestine here if we had quite realised what it was like. Further more, because there is no space, once we do get down into a tiny town, we are banned from stopping by huge notices forbidding camping cars! There is ample room for us in an ordinary car space but after our experience in Menton we dare not stop, even to buy food for supper! Jill drove roads like these for hours. It was hot, frustrating, wearing on the gears and Modestine showed signs of overheating – as did Jill! Nowhere was there the opportunity to pull in even to take a few deep breaths. We are well used to these sorts of roads having driven around Corsica, but we have never been banned from stopping before! Because of the terrain there is no way we can turn back inland to get away from the coast and we have no option but to continue along the coast road until we can pick up the motorway towards Pisa.

Because of the inaccessibility of the terrain there are no campsites. Hotels for car drivers are in the little towns, but these require on-street parking so we cannot use them or Modestine will be towed away during the night! So we continued our helter-skelter ride through Camogli, Rapallo, Santa Margarita and Zoagli to Chiavari. Here we did find a campsite. It is the only place in the town Modestine can legally rest her wheels. It is very expensive, there is no hot water and rather poor facilities. There is nothing we can do and they know it! We are right beside the sea, hemmed in by mountains, but quite honestly we have had rather a lot of beautiful coastal scenery for the time being! The campsite is not in a pretty part of town being tucked in behind the sports terrain and with disused buildings nearby along the seafront. We had a long walk back into the town to find anywhere to buy essentials for supper, but with Modestine banned from the streets our only options were to starve or walk! Camping car owners are definitely the new pariahs! There is a high fence all around this site. We know it is intended for our security but we do feel as if we are in an internment camp or leper colony! Around us are several wild cats which climb over Modestine and sniff our belongings searching for food. Cats are fine in the right place but at 25 euros a night we don't expect to have to suffer them here!

Sunset over Portofino seen from our campsite at Chiavari

Another frustration is that we have discovered from an email that our American friends from St. Chinian, Doug and Karen, are making a tour around Italy before they return to Montana. We have looked on the map and they are just a few kilometres around the coast from us here at Vernazza in the Cinqueterre! They might just as well be back in Montana as we only have their email address and cannot park Modestine to use the internet cafes that may possibly exist in the towns to make contact.

Trompe l'oeil decoration in Chiavari

Tuesday 9th May 2006, Pisa, Tuscany
Yes, we are camping almost within sight of the leaning tower! Mind you, the space in between is not what you might expect. It's just a really busy and ugly underpass for the railway station and a supermarket. Still, the campsite is in an ideal location for sight seeing and is quite a pleasant site with excellent facilities. At 26 euros a night we are beginning to realise prices in Italy are twice what they would be in France and three times the average in Portugal!

So we left our seaside sanctuary in Chiavari this morning feeling fresher for a good night's sleep, though Jill had an uncomfortable broken blood vessel in her right eye from the intense concentration of yesterday's driving. Really don't come to this part of Italy with a camping car, it is not worth the strain!

The coastal route on from Chiavari becomes even less accessible, the easiest access to the little villages along the coast being by boat. So we made our way back onto the motorway and stuck with it to Pisa. There is a certain adrenalin rush when you follow road signs to Rome and Florence! A little more exciting than Newton Poppleford and Chulmleigh! Our journey was spent almost entirely underground! We would exit from the two kilometre winding gut of one mountainside, to pass across a high and windy viaduct with dizzy glimpses down to minute villages far below, before disappearing again into the next tunnel. Inside, vehicles would stream past in the outside lane sending bright pools of light ahead of them, while we hugged the inside lane where huge international freight lorries would roar along inches from Modestine's tail, their engines making a horrendous echo in the darkness. Being a lorry sandwich in the tunnel of an Italian motorway is not really our idea of fun! Being hooted simply for being on the motorway and therefore in the way seems to be a popular pastime with Italian lorry drivers. It's a lot quicker and easier than the coast road though and in no time at all we were in Pisa where Ian directed us straight to this site having worked out its location from the Autoroute program we were given at the naturist camp in Spain!

The white marble mountains of Carrara seen from the autostrada
Used by sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore

Leaving Modestine to recover on our grassy plot, we walked into town where we simply followed the crowds to find ourselves in the Piazza dei Miracoli with the Cathedral, the circular baptistry and a rather lopsided building that looked as if it might fall down at any moment. All were in white marble from the nearby quarry of Carrara and very elaborate. They looked not a little like the Sacré Coeur in Paris and the Cathedral at Monaco but these were six hundred years earlier and provided the inspiration for those later buildings. Around the edge of the piazza were little stalls selling everything from fashion sunglasses and postcards to resin replicas of the tower, cheap watches and phone cards. The one language not particularly in evidence was Italian! There were guided tours everywhere with groups of Germans, groups of Japanese, groups of school children and groups of retired Saga folk.

Piazza dei Miracoli from the Porta Nuova, Pisa

The Cathedral, Pisa

Baptistry, Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Photographing the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

We decided not to join the queues to climb the tower, though it is said to be a very peculiar experience, giving the impression of going down rather than up! There was still so much to see around the town. Actually we thought all the buildings looked uneven, not just the tower. The Cathedral certainly seemed to dip towards one end. The doors of the Cathedral were made in 1602. They are in bronze, highly ornamented with saints, foliage, flowers, birds and animals in high relief. We particularly liked a rhinoceros at the base of one, perhaps inspired by Dürer.

Detail of the bronze door of the Cathedral, Pisa

Galileo (1564 – 1642) was from Pisa and it was while watching one of the lamps swinging in the Cathedral that he realised that the timing of a pendulum depended on its length, thus leading to a means of measuring time with greater accuracy.

We walked through the town, past the old buildings housing the University of Pisa, down to the river Arno, the same river that passes through Florence further upstream. Along either side of the river stand large residential buildings, palaces and churches with their roofed campaniles. Generally they date from the 16th to the 18th century and are rendered in bright yellows, tans and oranges, their shutters in all shades of green.

University buildings, Pisa

Palaces along the Arno, Pisa

We turned back into the town at the Piazza Garibaldi, his statue dominating the square. Amongst the labyrinth of little streets leading off from here we discovered an internet shop. Here our embryonic Italian was sorely tried when our passports were demanded before we could have access. We gather that in Italy it is the rule that you need ID before you can use a public access internet point. As it is also the rule that the campsites need your passport so they can register your arrival with the police, we did not have them with us at the time. ID documents we did hold did not have photos on so were unacceptable. So we were refused access even though we were there clutching our euros to pay in our hot sticky hands! Every country has its odd ways and we accept this, but sometimes it does become a bit wearing. In any case, we very much doubt if Interpol would ever be able to trace our movements across Europe over the past few months from campsite records. Staff have an amazing ability to get it all wrong. Frequently we have been listed as Monsieur Ian Françis, or Señor Paxton or Mr. Exeter! Even the police in Menton got it wrong, muddling up Jill's address with her place of birth!

Piazza Garibaldi, Pisa

Arcades on the Borgo Stretto, Pisa

There is so much to see in a place like Pisa but there is only so much we can take in. Slowly we made our way back to Modestine, stopping to investigate buildings on the way and calling at our first ever Italian supermarket to buy something for supper. We now have a fridge full of mozzarella cheese, gnocci and zucchini. Ciabatta bread now replaces our French baguettes and pain d'épice has given way to Amaretti biscuits! Well, when in Rome ...

And were we in Rome? No, this saved us a trip! Pisa

Wednesday 10th May 2006, Pisa, Tuscany
We are still on the same campsite as last night. After our morning driving along motorways and our afternoon around Pisa yesterday we slept really deeply last night. This morning we decided we needed a day without driving. So Modestine rested here while we went to the railway station and tried to puzzle out how Italian trains work and how to buy tickets from the automatic vending machines. There was nobody in the ticket office at Pisa. Just how important does a town need to be in Italy to have the railway station staffed?

After a brief journey through the attractive Tuscan countryside with hills covered in maquis and olive trees to one side of the track and a level plain filled with vines, orchards and allotments to the other, we reached the little town of Lucca, some thirty kilometres from Pisa. We had been recommended to visit here by our friend from Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. Otherwise we may well have passed it by not realising what a delightful gem it is.

The station stands just outside the 16th century brick built city ramparts. It is possible to walk right the way round, following along the walls shaded by leafy plane trees and pines. We concentrated on the older part within however. In general vehicles park outside, the streets being narrow and too crowded with visitors and locals on bicycles for traffic to pass through. Walking through the streets is a pretty dangerous undertaking though as there are hordes of bikes everywhere, ridden or parked at random. It is definitely the main way of getting around the city. Frequently there are at least two people to a bike and many are fitted with children's seats both in front and behind.

Brick ramparts at Lucca

Porta San Pietro, Lucca

The immaculately clean little streets will suddenly open out into large and beautiful squares, lined with magnificent palaces dating from the 12th century onwards, sometimes with a magnificent Romanesque church in white marble and its tall square campanile. Scattered around the squares are little restaurants with tables and chairs out in the sunshine where customers greet each other as they enjoy a gelati (excitingly different Italian ice cream) together. Around lunch time we stopped at a shaded table of one such little restaurant for a dish of lasagne and a small carafe of red wine - as we were not driving today!

Window shopping is delightful when you are unfamiliar with the ways of a country. Italy is very new to us and the displays of little cakes and biscuits in the bakers shops were tantalisingly attractive, as were chocolates and perfumes displayed elsewhere. As for the delicatessens! So many wonderful trays of artichoke hearts marinated in olive oil or tomatoes filled with cream cheese and whole shelves of dark bottles behind the counter containing different wines and varieties of olive oil! Not to mention the shelves of multicoloured pastas …

All this good life is lived against a rich cultural and historical backdrop. Lucca is a Roman town, and the remains of the amphitheatre are attractively built over with houses opening onto a large oval piazza lined with restaurants and shops. On the site of the forum is another square, with the church of San Michele, built with shining marble in the 12th century Romanesque style also to be found in Pisa - a riot of decorated columns in four galleries with animal figures picked out in darker stone against the white marble. Above it all is the figure of St Michael and inside a wonderful bright painting by Fillipino Lippi.

Houses in the Roman amphitheatre, Lucca

San Michele, Lucca

In an arcade on the other side of the square is a statue of the Renaissance sculptor Matteo Civitali, responsible for many monuments in the Cathedral and now presiding over the works of local schoolchildren who had taken part in a competition on the theme of "crafts and trades past, present and future". The imagination and technical skill was striking and allusions in the imagery they use show that the Italian artistic traditions are embedded in their way of seeing the world.

Matteo Civitali encourages the young artists of Lucca

The Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Martin and there is a rather severe 13th century sculpture of the saint sharing his cloak with the beggar on the façade - which is lop-sided as the architect had difficulty in fitting the full width of the south side into the frontage of the square while leaving room for the campanile. This lack of balance is not so evident inside, where there is a wealth of artistry – monuments by Civitali, including a massive shrine for the Volto Santo (a cross with the miraculous features of Christ), frescoes showing the history of the relic, a last supper by Tintoretto and so on. We have been used to seeing such treasures in galleries. Now in Italy we can see so many of them in the settings for which they were originally intended.

Not far from the Cathedral is another white marble church, San Giovanni, with an exhibition of excavations of the early Christian basilica and the Roman substructures, but by now we were becoming overloaded with so many inspiring things and would have to keep some strength in reserve for Florence, so we made our way back to the station and returned to Pisa and a campsite which is much noisier than yesterday with a large contingent of young campers.

San Giovanni, Lucca