We drove from Venice to Florence stopping for lunch at ‘Autogrill’, a chain of service stations/diners. The Autogrill had surprisingly well stocked supermarket and being Italian, good food and great coffee. The Tour Director had briefed us on ordering coffee, telling the Americans to ask for an americano for a black coffee or a cappuccino for coffee with milk and froth and warning the Aussies and New Zealanders to ask for a café latte, as a latte was a cup of hot milk. The process to get the coffee was unnecessarily complicated, involving ordering and paying for your coffee at one counter and then taking your receipt to a second coffee making counter. Adding to the confusion was the lack of queuing in Italy, the preferred method being to elbow your way to the counter and yell out what you wanted whilst waving your Euros in the air. It was nice to get some exercise after sitting in the bus for so long, and Selma and Patty may have encountered a few elbows that were not entirely necessary.
After a brief stop at the hotel, we drove to Pisa, home of the Leaning Tower. We thought we knew what to expect, a white cylindrical tower standing at an angle in a grassy field. Nope! The leaning tower shares the UNESCO World Heritage Site the Piazza dei Miracoli, (the Square of Miracles) with a sizeable Duomo (cathedral – the Leaning Tower is actually the cathedral’s bell tower), a Baptistry and the Camposanto (necropolis) all of which have a bit of a lean to them. The real miracle is that this engineering mistake attracts over a million visitors a year, a large proportion of whom climb to the top and, we discovered, all of whom book ahead. We weren’t too disappointed given the number of stairs we had climbed in the previous few days and instead looked around for a good vantage point to take the traditional ‘holding up /pushing over the Leaning Tower’ photos. It turns out there is a third traditional photo, re-enacting the ‘Deuce Bigalow – European Gigolo’ movie poster, but Nato declined to pose for that one.
Pisa was also the birthplace of Galileo Galilei. Stephen Hawking said of him, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science”, while Queen said “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro Magnifico!”
It was raining the next day in Florence when we emerged from our hotel for a walking tour. It was also the day of the Florence Marathon, so we were at risk of being run over not only by the scooters and three wheel trucks but also by the marathon runners. We learnt about the powerful Medici family who founded the Medici bank, developed the double-entry bookkeeping system, produced four Popes (an impressive feat when you remember the title is not passed on hereditarily) and were the Dukes of Florence and later the Grand Dukes Tuscany for almost 200 years. They were also great sponsors of art and architecture and over the years they supported Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo (and I’m sure at least one of them once suffered from a splinter). The Medici family emblem—a number of red balls on a gold shield—is prominently displayed on buildings all over Florence. Apparently, Medician supporters were rallied in times of danger by yelling “Palle! Palle! Palle!” a reference to the balls (palle) on the family coat of arms. It’s hard to imagine a cry of “balls, balls, balls” rallying anyone, but it must have been effective for the Medici to stay in power for so long. The three golden balls symbolising a pawnbroker are thought to be related to the balls of the Medici family emblem, as the Medici bank lent money.
The domed cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore or the Duomo with its three tone marble and mosaics is incredible, its sheer size breathtaking. We mingled with the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge populated with shops selling jewellery, art and souvenirs and gazed at the Fountain of Neptune. The god of the sea was suffering a damaged hand and trident from a recent act of vandalism (he has since been restored), but this was probably a trifle compared to the indignity of his fountain being used as a washbasin for laundry in the 16th century.
Neptune is just one of the huge marble nude statues that can be seen for free in Florence, but we joined the queue for the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the most famous of them all – Michelangelo’s David. It was amazing to stand in front of the original after spotting replicas in piazzas all around Florence. He is extraordinarily detailed, right down to the curls in his hair and the veins on the back of his hands and huge (except in the obvious area). Apparently Queen Victoria and other important ladies were spared this observation when viewing the plaster cast of David at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A detachable plaster fig leaf was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks – at least the leaf was well hung. Other interesting works at the Galleria dell’Accademia were the Prisoners, four unfinished works by Michelangelo. They show the different stages of his work, with marks from the various chisels he used. I felt sorry for them though, trapped, half-emerged from their block of marble, forgotten by their creator, never to be completed.
A spot of shopping lifted my spirits and a couple of leather coats, a wallet and a fabulous red handbag later we emerged into the rain. We spent more than anyone ever should on an umbrella from a street vendor to keep our new purchases dry. To add insult to injury it was the ugliest umbrella I had ever seen, a hideous mauve floral. The only good thing I could say about it is that kept us dry as we ended the day as we’d started it, walking the streets of Florence in the rain.