Tag Archives: Italy

Florence and the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio that crosses the river Arno in Florence is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that, allegedly due to a direct order from Adolph Hitler himself, wasn’t blown up by the retreating Germans as they cleared out from Florence in their withdrawal from Italy during the Second-World-War.  Knowing how the Germans were fond of blowing things up that must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!

The first bridge on this site was built a long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on piers of stone.  It was ruined in 1117, reconstructed soon after but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding and then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time more sensibly in stone.  Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade.

The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers who were passing through but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades, that were probably a bit of an eyesore anyway, and certainly responsible for polluting the river below.

They replaced them with goldsmiths and more similar upmarket shops and today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides with some of them precariously overhanging the river below supported only by slender timber brackets.  A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood on November 3rd that consumed the city and damaged some of them but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.  The flood story is an interesting one and a good account can be found at

www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/c-d/cities06.html

Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery.  When we visited the bridge it was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars of course.  Along the bridge there were many padlocks locked to the railings and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini.

This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition where by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.  This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed it later.  Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year.  To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!

Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this tale because according to ‘Eurostat’ even though the divorce rate has doubled in the last five years Italy has one of the lowest rates in the European Union.  Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for a fact I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!

A day trip to Florence

Venice three visits three hotels

Rain in Alghero

It really was very miserable, the sky was grey and the temperature had plummeted too.  The walk into town was much less pleasant as we had to negotiate puddles and streaks of sandy mud running across the pavements.  And town wasn’t much better either; everywhere seemed gloomy and uninviting now that the sun had deserted us.

In the October drizzle everywhere looked dejected today including the walk along the battlements overlooking a much rougher sea, now minus its sparkle, the old abandoned hospital that looked bleak under salt-and-pepper skies and the pavements that today seemed littered with dog excrement, which was bad, but not as bad as most of the pavements in France.  One sight did amuse us both though; there on the sea front was the tiniest Piaggio three-wheeled street cleaning vehicle I have ever seen with two of the fattest street cleaners that I have ever seen squeezed together in the undersized cab sheltering from the rain and I imagine doing irreparable damage to the suspension.  I stopped to take their photograph and they laughed at me laughing at them.

As things started to improve we thought we would have a drink in the bar we liked yesterday but when we got there it was shut so we cursed the cooperative roster system and were obliged to find an alternative.  We found one we liked the look of and as we sat and had a drink and felt sorry for ourselves we watched the tourist trains with the cruise ship visitors and the superior horse drawn carriages for those who had a bit more money to waste and surprisingly as we did so the weather started to get better and the sun, trying to find a way through, started to peek out from behind the clouds.  Soon it was quite warm so we walked back to the hotel and looked for a restaurant for lunch.

Having established lunch opening times we found that the weather had improved so much that we had time and could go to the beach so we changed into appropriate clothing and went for a stretch on the sand.  For the third day in a row we went for a swim in the sea but today we decided against tackling the ambitious swim to the rocks.  It was cold when first getting in but for someone bought up on holidays to Norfolk and the forbidding North Sea, believe me this wasn’t a problem at all and I enjoyed a swim in the Mediterranean water.

Venice or Korčula, Birthplace of Marco Polo?

In April 2005 I visited Venice for the fourth time.  The city of Venice is generally regarded to be the birth place of Marco Polo – but is it?

The Italian city is fairly insistent that it is the birthplace of the explorer and as well as restaurants and hotels has even named its airport after the great traveller, but if you speak to the people of Korčula they are equally adamant that he was born there in a house in the centre of the town.  Interestingly however neither city seems sufficiently confident of their conflicting claims to provide the funds to commission a statue of the famous traveller.

When I visited Croatia in 2009 I visited the island of Korčula and one of the main visitor sites in the town is the Marco Polo house.   Korčula is compact (small)  and after walking around the old town several times we were saving a visit to the house and museum for as long as possible so when we had done everything else that we could we delayed it a few moments longer by stopping at a café bar outside the cathedral where we sat under red umbrellas and it was a good job we did because while we there it started to spit with rain.

So now we went to the Marco Polo house and negotiated our way through the gift shop outside and paid our admission fee to enter the house.

Marco Polo was born in 1254 (somewhere) and was an explorer who wrote ‘Il Milione’, which introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. He learned about trading whilst together with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, he voyaged through Asia and met Kublai Khan. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia and travelled almost twenty-five thousand kilometres, a journey which took them nearly twenty-five years.

For his troubles Marco was accused of being a fraud and imprisoned, and whilst incarcerated dictated his stories to a fellow prisoner and cell mate.  Even today suspicion continues and some historians think it more likely that the Venetian merchant adventurer picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol Empire from Persian merchants whom he met on the shores of the Black Sea – thousands of miles short of the Orient.  

In a book published in 1995, “Did Marco Polo Go to China?”, Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section at the British Library,  argued that he probably did not make it beyond the Black Sea.

He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and had three children. He died in 1324, and was buried in San Lorenzo in Italy.

The house is due to be turned into a museum sometime soon but at the moment it has to be said that it is a bit of a disappointment.  There are no exhibits and no rooms to show them in if there were, only a succession of uneven stairs that lead to the top of a tower with an average sort of view over the town.

On the plus side the admission price did include a postcard of Marco Polo (above) – each!

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is probably one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Europe and probably the whole World.

I can certainly remember it from a school encyclopedia article and when I was a schoolboy I was always intrigued by the concept of a building listing so perilously to one side that it was apparently just waiting for a strong wind to topple it over.  I had secretly suspected that the pictures had exaggerated the buildings predicament so I was astounded when I actually saw it for the first time and was able to satisfy myself that this tower really does lean over a very long way indeed.  The tower actually leans at an angle of five and a half degrees and this means that the tower is four and a half metres from where it would stand if it was perpendicular.  That may not sound like a lot but believe me this thing really leans.

Although obviously intended to stand vertically, the tower began leaning over soon after construction began in 1173 due to a poorly prepared ground that allowed the inadequately prepared foundations to shift.  Today the height of the tower is nearly fifty-six metres from the ground on the lowest side and nearly fifty-seven metres on the highest side.  The width of the walls at the base is a little over four metres and at the top two and a half metres. Its weight is estimated at fourteen thousand five hundred tonnes so little wonder then that it started to sink.

Impending collapse brought construction proceedings to a halt for a hundred years while architects and builders considered what to do and over the intervening years there have been a number of attempts to prevent the whole thing giving in to the law of gravity and crashing to the ground.

In 1272, for example, builders returned to the project and four more floors were added at an angle to try to compensate for the lean.  Their answer was to build the support columns higher on one side than on the other to get the whole thing vertical again.   Now I am not an engineer but I think that even I would have spotted the inherent problem with this particular solution that has resulted in the curious curve in the structure about half way up.  It continued to lean of course because more weight meant even more pressure on the dodgy foundations.  Then in the 1930’s Benito Mussolini ordered that the tower be returned to a vertical position, so concrete was poured into its foundation. This was a massive engineering cock-up and the result was that the tower actually sank further into the soil and there was a real danger that it would suffer the same fate as the Venice campanile which collapsed in 1902.

 In 1964 Italy finally had to concede that it couldn’t maintain its erection any longer, called for help and requested aid in preventing the tower from falling over completely.  A multinational task force of eggheads was assembled to come up with a miracle Viagra cure.  Then, after over two decades of serious cranium scratching, the tower was closed on 7th January 1990 and work to stabalise it began.  It took a further ten years of corrective reconstruction and stabilisation efforts before the tower reopened to the public in 2001.

I am glad of that because I visited in 2007 and purchased a ticket for the trip to the top.  There are two hundred and ninety four steps up a spiral staircase that take visitors up and which due to the absence of windows, and therefore orientation, is reminiscent of a fairground wacky house attraction, especially when although you know that you were ascending sometimes according to the extreme angle of the tilt of the building it feels as though you were going down at the same time, which, believe me, is a very weird experience.

I liked the Leaning Tower of Pisa because it lived up to all of my expectations, I tried to bring to mind anything else that was famous for leaning but all I could think of was Oliver Reed after forty pints of beer and George Formby who used to lean on lamp posts looking at ladies but that was in a previous age when this was still an innocent and acceptable thing to do.

In London St Stephen’s Tower at the Palace of Westminster which contains the clock Big Ben is leaning to one side and may eventually become unstable – but only in thousands of years and it will take a long time to challenge the Leaning Tower of Pisa for tourist bragging rights.  St. Stephen’s Tower leans 0.26 degrees to the north-west, putting it out of alignment by about 0.5m at its highest point but right now the 0.26 º angle is one 16th of the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s tilt.

A Year in a Life – 18th November, Rome, The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica

“From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.”                                                         Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

By mid afternoon when we crossed the River Tiber over the Ponte Sant’ Angelo like time travellers we had completed the ancient, the medieval, and the modern and now it was time for the religious.  Rome is the most important holy city in Christendom and St Peter’s Basilica at the heart of the Vatican City is the headquarters of the Catholic Church and is a place where some of the most important decisions in the history of Europe and the World have been made over the centuries.  (A Basilica by the way is a sort of double Cathedral because it has two naves).

The route took us past the Castel Sant’ Angelo, which was the Pope’s ‘safe house’ in times of danger and into the busy square outside the Basilica where a long queue of people seemed to snake forever around the perimeter waiting for their turn to go inside.  We joined the back of it and were pleased to find that it shuffled quite quickly towards the main doors and soon we were inside the biggest and the tallest church in the world that has room for sixty-thousand worshippers at one sitting and even Micky overcame his usual reluctance to visit the inside of a religious building and joined us.  It was busy inside but not uncomfortable and we soaked up the atmosphere as we passed by chapels with precious holy relics, the tombs of dead Popes and rooms with glass cases full of religious artefacts.

Outside we saw the Swiss Guards in their striking medieval uniforms of blue, red and yellow and the Vatican post office doing a brisk trade in post marking letters and postcards.

The Vatican is the third smallest state in Europe after Monaco and San Marino and its status is guaranteed by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 when Church and State, who had been squabbling since Italian unification, finally thrashed out a compromise deal that was marked by the building of a new road the Via della Conciliazione which, I have to say, to me seems rather sterile and lacking any real character.  It is expensive however and from a street side stall we bought the dearest water I have ever had at €4 for a small bottle.  We weren’t going to fall for that again so later on Kim refilled it from a public fountain by the side of the road.

The Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II took us back over the River Tiber and not unsurprisingly onto the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II which leads inevitably to the Vittorio Emanuele monument at the other end.  As it stretched out in front of us there was about a kilometre and a half to walk and all of a sudden my itinerary looked for the first time to be overly ambitious.  We had seen everything that we had planned to see but now there was a long walk back to the train station and everyone was hot and tired.

This long road is flanked with Palaces and Churches and Piazzas but our feet and legs were leached by the effort and aching and it was desperately hot so all we wanted was a bar and a cold drink even if it did cost another eye-watering €25 for five drinks.  We found a place about half way along the road and stopped for half an hour to rest and recover in the comfort of an air-conditioned bar and yes, sure enough it cost us €25.

A Life in a Year – 3rd November, Florence and the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio that crosses the river Arno in Florence is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that, allegedly due to a direct order from Adolph Hitler himself, wasn’t blown up by the retreating Germans as they cleared out from Florence in their withdrawal from Italy during the Second-World-War.  Knowing how the Germans were fond of blowing things up that must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!

The first bridge on this site was built a long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on piers of stone.  It was ruined in 1117, reconstructed soon after but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding and then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time more sensibly in stone.  Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade. The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers who were passing through but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades, that were probably a bit of an eyesore anyway, and certainly responsible for polluting the river below.

They replaced them with goldsmiths and more similar upmarket shops and today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides with some of them precariously overhanging the river below supported only by slender timber brackets.  A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood on November 3rd that consumed the city and damaged some of them but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.  The flood story is an interesting one and a good account can be found at

www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/c-d/cities06.html

Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery.  When we visited the bridge it was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars of course.  Along the bridge there were many padlocks locked to the railings and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini.

This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition where by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.  This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed it later.  Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year.  To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!

Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this tale because according to ‘Eurostat’ even though the divorce rate has doubled in the last five years Italy has one of the lowest rates in the European Union.  Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for a fact I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!

A day trip to Florence

Venice three visits three hotels

A Life in a Year – 19th October, Rain in Alghero

It really was very miserable, the sky was grey and the temperature had plummeted too.  The walk into town was much less pleasant as we had to negotiate puddles and streaks of sandy mud running across the pavements.  And town wasn’t much better either; everywhere seemed gloomy and uninviting now that the sun had deserted us. 

In the October drizzle everywhere looked dejected today including the walk along the battlements overlooking a much rougher sea, now minus its sparkle, the old abandoned hospital that looked bleak under salt-and-pepper skies and the pavements that today seemed littered with dog excrement, which was bad, but not as bad as most of the pavements in France.  One sight did amuse us both though; there on the sea front was the tiniest Piaggio three-wheeled street cleaning vehicle I have ever seen with two of the fattest street cleaners that I have ever seen squeezed together in the undersized cab sheltering from the rain and I imagine doing irreparable damage to the suspension.  I stopped to take their photograph and they laughed at me laughing at them.

As things started to improve we thought we would have a drink in the bar we liked yesterday but when we got there it was shut so we cursed the cooperative roster system and were obliged to find an alternative.  We found one we liked the look of and as we sat and had a drink and felt sorry for ourselves we watched the tourist trains with the cruise ship visitors and the superior horse drawn carriages for those who had a bit more money to waste and surprisingly as we did so the weather started to get better and the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds.  Soon it was quite warm so we walked back to the hotel and looked for a restaurant for lunch.

Having established lunch opening times we found that the weather had improved so much that we had time and could go to the beach so we changed into appropriate clothing and went for a stretch on the sand.  For the third day in a row we went for a swim in the sea but today we decided against tackling the ambitious swim to the rocks.  It was cold when first getting in but for someone bought up on holidays to Norfolk and the forbidding North Sea, believe me this wasn’t a problem at all; my testicles didn’t object and retract into my pelvis so I took this as a sign that the temperature was some degrees comfortably above zero and I enjoyed a swim in the Mediterranean water.  As usual I took my trunks off to enjoy natural swimming but Kim stole them and teased me about having to exit the water without clothes but I pleaded hard and luckily she gave them back at an appropriate moment to spare my blushes because I wasn’t absolutely certain how to convert an imperial ten inches into metric centimetres when filling in a police charge sheet.

A Life in a Year – 18th October, A Street Market in Alghero

We woke and I checked the weather.  It was glorious once again and the sky was a never-ending blue.  We had a very adequate breakfast and I made acquaintances with a gay couple who gave me some advice on where to go and what to see.  The informative taxi driver had told us about a street market that was in town every Wednesday so after breakfast we went to find it. 

There were lots of clothes stalls and some selling domestic items that didn’t interest us especially but we did like the food stalls, especially the vegetables and the cheese.  Once again the choice of top quality produce was truly amazing and I always compare this with the paucity of offerings back home.  Shoppers were buying olives by the kilo, presumably to take home and press, and the range and quality of the produce was staggering.  If only crops like these were available in the United Kingdom, I am certain that we would all be healthier.  We enjoyed some free samples from the two dairy stalls where competition seemed about to boil over into violence between two cheesed-off vendors who were struggling for customers and then we left to walk the coastline to the next village.   

We walked along the beach with the intention of reaching the nearby village of Fertilia, which looking out over the bay from Alghero appeared to be picturesque and inviting.  To get there we passed through a pine wood and onto the beautiful sandy beaches and although the weather was becoming cloudier we enjoyed a pleasant walk along the beach to the village.  On the way we passed a naturist who was burning his private parts in the sun and we passed by trying to appear disinterested. 

What a disappointment the next village was.  It was dull and uninviting and it didn’t help that most of it was closed.  There were no restaurants open and we could only find one dreary old fashioned bar where we stopped for a quick drink with the October flies before setting off back to Alghero.  The only thing of note was a thirteen arch roman bridge at an ancient site just outside the village and that was in ruins.

Retracing our steps back along the beach the day got cooler as the clouds raced over and we worried that maybe this was the end of the good weather. 

We needn’t have been pessimistic because after a short while the sun came out again so we changed appropriately and went to the beach.  About two hundred metres out to sea was a reef of rocks that was home to a flock of Cormorants and Kim challenged me to swim there.  Later she became convinced that it was more than two hundred metres but truthfully it wasn’t.  Two hundred metres doesn’t sound very far I agree, but swimming there was more of a challenge than I had imagined.  As we got further from the shore the sea swell became more difficult to negotiate but what was most perturbing was that the closer we got the birds seemed to get much bigger until they looked positively huge.  After swimming Cormorants stand and dry off and extend their metre wide wingspan to the full and they began to look very intimidating.

I was prepared to go on of course but with about thirty meters to go Kim panicked, renamed the reef Pterodactyl Island, on account of the size of the birds and persuaded me to return to shore.  The short swim back was more difficult than getting out there and I had to agree that we had made the right decision.  Those birds were large.

In the evening it was back into Alghero for dinner.  Last night’s restaurant was closed but others were now open and we worked it out that because it was out of season they were operating a cooperative roster system and we thought that was clever.  After a while we found an inviting restaurant with outside tables that overlooked the sea from the battlements and we had a very good meal that included a fish medley and a bottle of inexpensive wine. 

A Life in a Year – 24th August, Mount Vesuvius, Naples and Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  What that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by previous eruptions.  It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii over two days beginning on 24th  August 79 it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.  The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit.  Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.

When I visited in 1976 it was twenty years before the creation of the National Park and the route up the mountain was via a narrow, steep, winding road through some of the poorest residential areas in Naples.  These were people who have chosen to live in run-down houses and shacks, many of which still had evidence of the damage inflicted by the 1944 eruption. They lived in the potential danger zone making the most out of the highly fertile volcanic earth to make a living out of growing fruit and vegetables and selling these at local street markets.

The coach wheezed its way up the narrow road and around the hairpin bends to a coach park about three hundred metres from the top of the one thousand, three hundred metre high crater.  This was as far as it could go but there was still a considerable way to go up a dusty path of loose volcanic ash and clinker so it was a good job that we had taken the pre-excursion advice to wear stout shoes and suitable clothing.  The track would almost certainly not have met current health and safety regulations because there was very little to stop careless people slipping and falling over the edge and tumbling down the mountain because every so often the track had slipped away down a massive vertical drop and occasionally had been propped up with a few bits of insufficient wood held together with scraps of string.  I understand that it is a lot safer now however.

It took about half-an-hour to reach the top and that wasn’t much safer either with a path with a potential vertical fall into the six hundred and fifty metre wide crater if you didn’t keep your wits about you.   It was worth the climb however because it was a clear day and the views from the top were simply stunning.  To the west was Naples laid out before us and beyond that the Bay of Naples and then the Thyrrenian Sea liberally punctuated by tiny islands and islets, which looked as though they were floating on the water like precious jewels set in a priceless braclet.  To the east was the countryside and the vineyards of the region of Campania and the mid morning sun shone brightly on both land and sea below us.  The path around the crater was made of the same ash and pumice and on the way around I collected some pieces of curiously shaped lava that caught my eye and put them in my pocket and I still have these on show at home even today.

Apart from the spectacular views there wasn’t really a great deal to see at the top except for the great yawning crater and a big hole full of rocks waiting to blow up again sometime soon.  I suppose the point of going to the top of Vesuvius is simply to say you have been there and not because there is anything special to see.  In the sunshine the colours however were fascinating, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber and all over there was scraggy green vegetation clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.  There were little wisps of smoke and every so often a smell of sulphur and a little bit of steam drifting across the path just to remind us that this was a living and active volcano.  At the top an old man demonstrated how hot the rocks were by lighting a cigarette by bending down and igniting it on the rocks.  I think he must have got through a lot of cigarettes in a day and we were all impressed with this and left a small contribution in his collection pot but I have always wondered subsequently if it was some sort of trick.

A Life in a Year – 11th August, Train Ride From Pisa to Lucca

We had a little breakfast across the road from the hotel and then we walked to the train station because today we planned to go to Lucca.  On the way it started to rain so we looked for a bar to shelter in until it passed.  The menu was reasonably inexpensive but hidden in small print was information that we would be charged nearly €2 each for service which was going to double the price of the drinks that we were intending to order.   In the old days it was customary to leave the addition of a tip to the discretion of the customer now many bars and restaurants just add it on anyway and then still expect you to leave a few extra coins as well.  This represents customer fleecing on a grand scale and not being prepared to pay this extortionate sum we got up and left and with some difficulty found a bar without this arrangement.

The train arrived on time and we took the short thirty minute ride to Lucca.  Once we were out of the city we passed through fields of arable farm land and were pleased to pass through acres of sunflowers all bobbing their heads in the sun and shining like a swaying cloth of gold.

Lucca is everything that you expect from a Tuscan medieval city.  It is the largest Italian city with its medieval wall still completely intact and inside it has a number of attractive piazzas and a labyrinth of narrow streets to get confused and lost in and we explored some back streets and alleyways before settling down at a pavement café for lunch in a side street near the Piazza St Michele. 

We liked the Cathedral Square and the buskers entertaining the crowds, the spacious Piazza Napoleone and the Piazza San Michele but our favourite was the Piazza Anfiteato that was built on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre and had retained its elliptical shape.

Lucca is also famous for being the birthplace of the composer Pucini whose best known works include La Bohème, Tosca and Madam Butterfly, but most people will be familiar with Nessun Dorma which has become an opera standard.  It is an interesting fact that Pucini contracted throat cancer and he was one of the first people to be treated by radiation therapy.  This wasn’t a great success and he died shortly afterwards from complications that caused continuous bleeding from the treated area and finally a heart attack.

Later in the afternoon we walked back to the train station, stopping for ice cream on the way, and took the train back to Pisa.  After some quiet time on the hotel terrace Sally and I returned to last night’s restaurant where I enjoyed a tasty seafood pasta and Sally had the tiramisu that she had been promising herself all day.

After dinner it was time for me to go and despite thje hectic traffic I made it back in one piece and then caught the train to the airport where after an effortless check in I waited for the plane and then slept the whole way home.  It had been a good two days and I had satisfied myself that I had no need for concern for the girls as they continued their grand tour of Italy.