Sunday, 18 August 2019

Pisa, Italy (and the beauty of a Tuscan highway)

Dammit Karen appreciates the journey to Pisa, Italy as much as the destination.
The Baptistery and Campanile in Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Italy.
The Piazza del Duomo and Leaning Tower of Pisa (Photo credits: Author)

The Road to Pisa, Italy

First, let me be clear: it is terrifying to drive in the Greater Florence Area. Let me be even more specific: by "drive" I mean, "be driven", and by "GFA", I'm talking about the area from Pisa to Collodi to Florence and up the hills into Sieci and Pontassieve. I'm referring specifically to the super-skinny, hairpin-turny, crazily steep-and-surrounded-on-both-sides-by-very-old-and-tall-stone-walls streets that Google Maps sent us down (and up).

Fis has a theory that Google Maps sends us down such tiny roads (even in London) because it's learned that those are the kind of roads we prefer, and each time we accept such a route, this learning is reinforced.

I have two theories. One is that -- and hear me out -- that's what kind of streets there are in very old cities. The other one is that Google can hear what Fis says about it, and is punishing him and by extension, me.

To sum up, when driving (being driven) through the gorgeous hills around Florence, do not rent a large vehicle that is big enough for a family of five and their luggage and thus not at all made to hug a curve. Do not be in a rush. Do not drive angry.

Oh well, too late now.

But we survived, and this post is not about that. It's about a highway.

A Tuscan highway

Our last day in Italy was a beautiful day for the 90-minute drive to Pisa, all blue-skied and sunny, and the A11 highway between Florence and Pisa is possibly the most interesting one I have ever seen. It's a toll road (5.90 saved us 40 minutes -- worth it), and seemed to be kept in impeccable repair. Once we were out of the cities and towns and well underway, I relaxed my Unblinking Navigator Stressball persona, and gazed out the window at the ever-changing variety of plants and forests drifting by. After a few kilometres, I noticed that the plants and trees, flowering and coniferous, were in orderly rows and groupings. This continued for kilometre after kilometre, and repeated most of the way to Pisa. Once in a while, a large sign indicated the name of these commercial nurseries and tree farms (interspersed with cornfields).

It was beautiful to see. What an ideal way to use the land beside a highway: property there would be less attractive to developers (who wants to live right behind the highway?), but I'd bet the land on the far side of the nursery is prized. The expanse of trees and bushes (and the distance) would mute the noise of the traffic, beautifully, and I'm pretty sure science would say that plants help to clean the air from the emissions as well. Their visibility from the highway would be advertisement enough - it's a win/win for everyone involved.

A child poses behind a wooden cutout of Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy
This was not the strangest thing we saw at Parco di Pinocchio. Not by far.

A quirky theme park

We stopped in Collodi for a few hours to take in the Pinocchio Park, a quirkily enchanting combination of a sculpture garden and adventure park, with a hilarious puppet show that I bet would have been even funnier if I understood more than "pescecane!" (shark!) and "oh nooooo!". The reviews had run hot and cold, but we're glad we went. It was, as most of the reviewers noted, no Disneyland, but it was full of magic and art. Then, with time a-ticking, we got back on the road to Pisa with an ambitious goal: to get to the famous leaning tower, see it, and be back in the car driving homeward within 45 minutes.

We drove 130 km/hr (the speed limit) all the way there, and I became The Navigator again to get us to the closest free carpark (as we had spent all our money on tolls). The shuttle was waiting, and drove us the five minutes for 4. We stepped out into the heat and the crowds and vendors, winding our way through a seeming maze of old city walls and stalls selling cheap reproductions of leather purses and miniature towers. We stepped through an arch, and ... there it was.

Three children pretend to push the Leaning Tower of Pisa upright
"Push harder, kids! It's still leaning!"

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Some iconic landmarks are disappointing in real life.

When I saw the Statue of Liberty, it was smaller than I expected. After all the hype in movies, it just felt, well, small. I wasn't too keen on seeing this tower, either, as it meant a long drive on the last day of our holiday, and how great could it really be? Was the "lean" even noticeable? I was surprised that Chris was so insistent on us going so far to see it, but... wow. 

The baptistery and the tower (and boy, does it lean) set against a backdrop of dazzling photoshop-blue sky took my breath away. I didn't expect to be so moved (as I was at Stonehenge, another awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was something I've only seen in books and movies ever since I was little, and there it was. It was beautiful.

Maybe it made me appreciate again the distance we are from home, seeing something that I never really thought I'd see in real life. We gazed at it for a few minutes, took the required pushing-the-tower-back-up photos, then stopped for gelato (again!) before walking only nine minutes back to the car (instead of waiting for the next five-minute shuttle in 14 minutes). (And we saved 4, which was enough for a pretty good half-litre of wine with dinner.)

The drive back was pleasant (till we got off the highway and back onto properly terrifying Tuscan roads) and although I still had the beautiful, historical image fresh in my mind, I appreciated the highway design again.

Bella Italia, indeed.

(more travel notes to come, I promise)
A family leans away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, creating the illusion that the tower itself is straight.
More Fun with Perspective!



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