Monday, August 19, 2013

All laud to the tower that leans

Fourteen years ago, Mr Beehive and I came to Italy. We were younger (fourteen years to be precise!), less grey, thinner (by three children for me!), more naïve and less sceptical (isn’t it a shame what life does to you?). We were newly weds on our honeymoon (I’d like to say we were alone, but that’d be a lie, the only thing I can say in our defence was that we didn’t know we had a hitchhiker on board!). We began our two week vacation in Venice, and what a splendid introduction to Italy that was. We’d splurged on two nights in the Doge’s palace. What with that, the water taxi arrival, the masks, the gondolas, the bridges, the coffee…it was superb. Two days later we took the high speed train down to Rome. Bearing in mind this was pre-year 2000 celebrations, but all the city was under tarpaulin! We were staying at a hotel that ‘gave a lovely view of the city’, but sadly at this time of restoration and repair, gave us a view of a swathe of grey/blue tarp with some of the world’s most famous monuments buried underneath. Not impressed. However, we saw the coliseum, which was amazing, went to Vatican City and saw ‘the ceiling’ – equally amazing, went down the Spanish steps and learned that swear words graphitised in Italian are the same as English but you stick an ‘o’ on the end, however, one of the things I’d really got hung up about was seeing the Trevi fountain.
When I’m hung up on something, I have to follow it through, even if the consequences are not quite what I have expected. The other thing I’m pretty good at is having pre-conditioned ideas. In my head I’d pimped the Trevi to be in a beautiful square surrounded by lots of cafes. The books had given me the impression this was the case. To say I was a little underwhelmed when I got there would be an understatement. One of my final gifts is the inability to just.let.things.go when they disturb my perfect world. Fourteen years later, I STILL talk about the Trevi and its disappointing ‘wow’ factor. Don’t get me wrong, the fountain itself is wow, but the setting was more ‘ow’ than ‘wow’.
For this very reason, and the fact I’d done my estate agent read through the bullshit in the guide book, I was all ready for Pisa and the leaning tower to be in a back street next to a load of lock up garages and wasteland.
We decided to take the train, partly because Mr Beehive had had enough of driving for a few days, partly because the bus eats petrol like a mosquito in a blood bank, partly because the cost of parking we felt would probably be the final straw in our one family attempt to solve Italy’s financial conundrum and partly because we wanted to just be free of the car for a day.
If you’ve never done rail travel in Italy, do! That is all. It is ridiculously cheap in relation to everything else in the country, in fact, in relation to rail travel in the UK. Most stations have everything in English as well as Italian, trains are fast (well, if you go on the high speed ones for which there is naturally a premium to pay), regular and clean (ish – if you ignore the rather classy graffiti on the outsides). Returns for the five of us (children under 12 are half price) was 60 Euros. Pisa, from where we are staying is around 1.5 – 2 hours’ drive. Now calculate that on British Rail…Not bad eh? No restrictions on times that we travel, the station was in Campiglia, so easy to get to, parking at the station was free and we got a seat no problem.  Of course, if you’re married to Mr Beehive, getting on a train in a European country always pushes the button that recalls his tales of Inter-railing as a student, which, naturally is interesting, but you recall earlier….fourteen years people, four-teen-years!!!
The map at Pisa station detailed a short walk to the Leaning tower. Pisa station itself is clean enough as stations go. It’s in a relatively open part of Pisa, not creepy or particularly grubby as many London stations can be, or somewhere that has you clutching your purse for fear of pick pockets. We walked the shortish ten minutes to the tower complex past shops that were…closed for August *sigh*.

If you have not been to the Leaning Tower – do! Also, if you have not been, you will know when you are getting close because you will suddenly start to meet all the hawkers. The leaning tower is not one that you can see well from the flat of other parts of the city, so there is no prior warning other than men trying to fit neon sunglasses on top of your sunglasses or an extra watch or two on your already watch-adorned arm!
However, when you do catch that first glimpse, you may well be blown away. Trevi it is NOT!
I didn’t realise that the Tower and the Baptistery and the Duomo were all so close together. They are also still so WHITE! The Scott memorial in Edinburgh is the closest similarity I can use: The city (Edinburgh) spent hundreds of thousands sandblasting the memorial to try to restore its original colour. Other beautiful landmarks in Edinburgh and around the UK are less fortunate as. Of course, sandstone erodes dreadfully on  blasting, which is one reason, but also hundreds of years of burning coal in the UK has created a distinct dirty sheen to many British monuments that no amount of money or time will completely remove. Here in the Mediterranean, however, white gleaming towers, cathedrals and baptisteries all in their leaning glory against a backdrop of vivid blue makes you realise why the sunglasses sellers are so desperate to sell you an extra pair or two. Your pupils not only dilate they seriously shrink into your head. It is AMAZING!
This is something the Italians have got SO right. Surrounding each monument is an area of grass that is chained off, so no one can go on the grass. This means that each monument has open space around it. Naturally, there are snakes and snakes of tourists (so many Japanese that it resembles Bicester village at times!) but they are all restricted to the paths around the periphery and to the entrances of the attractions.
Of course, trying to take photos around the people taking photos of their loved ones holding up the tower, pushing the tower over or catching the tower ( – so lame ;-)) is a nightmare.
The photos below are NOT mine I hasten to add as I got stroppy that I couldn’t seem to get them angled right yet Master Beehive the elder captured some great ones of his siblings that I have now pilfered.

We had tickets to go up the tower and for the cathedral, so after selling our souls to buy a couple of coffees and three two-sip hot chocolates, we went into the cathedral. The inside is as beautiful as the outside.  The mosaics and the ceilings were simply stunning. I’m not one for being able to describe things in words, so the pictures will have to do to try to explain the magnitude of their beauty.
On leaving the tower, we paid to have a wee (well, what did you expect?) and had a half hour wait for our slot up the tower.
The bell tower is now (allegedly – not that I’m remotely sceptical) totally secure in its tilt. Having been shut for many years in the late 1990’s they have now managed to stop it leaning further. Therefore, it is safe to climb again. It’s an incredible structure, surreal in fact. To think it was built only five years before it started to lean, yet there it has stood for a further 800 years. The reason it leans is that the foolish man built his house upon the sand (and didn’t put in strong enough foundations to support it). Initially it was only three stories high before it began to tilt, but engineering obviously wasn’t hung up about it, and the next three stories were then built on top, but each with a small angle to the contrary of the one below to try to ‘rectify’ the lean. Rather than this solving the issue, it left the tower with a banana shaped lean. I’d heard many people say that it gives a very weird feeling when you’re inside. I have to say I didn’t feel this so much, despite a plumb line insisting I was on a slant, perhaps this says something about my own stance? However, you certainly feel it on the top, particularly if you walk around the bell tower level from one side to the other and suddenly you seem to be lower.

It’s a good trog up and down, not for the faint-hearted, but definitely worth it, particularly if, like much Italian architecture, it’s one day going to end up under sand or water!

Today we were due back at the Thermal baths, however, the night last night was hot, hot, hot, and no one slept particularly well, the haze over the sea gives a distinct impression of a later storm, we’re going to stay close to home, read some typical holiday trash, go to Conad’s for lunch supplies and use the local café to hook up to the net later. Tomorrow, we’ll try the baths if the weather looks less unsavoury, then we’re off to Siena on the train on Wednesday, Volterra again on Thursday, and the baths on Friday if we don’t find anyone to take us out on a boat around the coast and home on Saturday. Hopefully we’ll catch up after Siena.


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