After the disappointment of Naples and Rome I was glad to be heading to Pisa and the Leaning Tower. I’ve always wanted to see this tower, and now my chance had come and it did not disappoint. The Leaning Tower was my first real ‘wow’ moment for Italy, and didn’t even see it coming so to say. I was following my photocopied map and suddenly looked up and there it was, in the background behind residential flats and houses. Just like that – amongst people’s homes and it is such a cool, unique building that attracts visitors from all over the world, yet some lucky ones see it every day when hanging out the washing.
I decided to pay the €15 to climb it and was so glad I did. You could actually feel the lean of the tower as you climbed the steps circling the inside. I hadn’t thought it would be so obvious, but it certainly was. One minute you were at equi-distance between the walls and with a few more steps you suddenly found yourself closer to the outer wall and as you went higher it became necessary to physically put your left hand on the wall as you climbed, to keep your balance. It was amazing and I highly recommend doing the climb if you get the chance.
We were allowed to go outside at a point half way up (as the previous group descended), and again at the top we were allowed to circle the exterior and take photos. This is where you were visually affected by the lean. On the high side all was good, then as you walked around to the lower side you suddenly saw a bit more ground than previously and gravity meant you automatically leant towards the rickety looking railing meant to keep you ‘safe’. I wasn’t too bothered, but you could see the ones who were. They were either creeping along with their back pressed against the tower, not daring go near the railing, or some were practically sliding along on their bums so as not to have to stand up. It was difficult to get pictures from the top to show the lean, so I got some great ones from the ground instead. The weather had been cloudy and overcast when I left Rome but had cleared to a brilliant blue sky with a few clouds upon my arrival in Pisa. I took it as a sign of good things to come.
The next day I headed to Florence, for a few hours stop over before Bologna. I loved Florence. It was basically along the river, with grand buildings and architecture to admire, and had trees which gave it a living quality that I’d missed in Rome. I found it extremely difficult to get maps of any kind in Italy, and if the information centres actually existed and happened to have a map they wanted to charge you €2 for it. They seriously tried to squeeze every last dollar out of the tourists, and I didn’t like it. I discovered the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses in every city, and I would ask for a map of the bus routes under the guise of studying it before I bought a ticket. Considering the ticket for each city was between € 18 and € 22, I certainly wasn’t going to get on the bus. However, the maps they had indicated all the major landmarks and icons that the buses stopped at and which roads they took to get there. So, I followed the routes on foot. Not all of the route mind you, just the sections I was interested in. The maps didn’t name every street, but you got the general gist of where to go and how to get there. This method continues to work for me in every city that has the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses and has saved me a few € ‘s in the process!
I saw all the major ‘must see’s’ in Florence, and was a little overwhelmed with the nunber of tourists around, however I soon discovered they were from a cruise ship that docked in Florence for the day and there were not usually quite so many people around at the beginning of June. I met some lovely people from Wales, who told me of a nice coffee shop to visit when I get there and who also took a photo of me on my camera. This is an ongoing issue when you travel alone, getting photos of yourself. Often you resort to the self portrait style, other times you have to ask someone else to take it. Being particular about photography I often do not like the photos other people take, so I now set up the camera to how I want it, including zooming it and sometimes even taking a photo of the area I want them to get and point to where I will stand when they take the photo. Sometimes they get it right, other times I say thanks and delete the photo they took because it’s crap and repeat the process with someone else a bit later on 🙂
I had intended to get a certain train from Florence to Bologna, the cheaper one, but when I wanted to book the ticket it was sold out. Not happy! This meant that instead of paying about $10 for a seat on a train (ok, so it was a bit slower, but who cares, I was still going to get there in the end!), I had to pay just over $30 for standing room only on a faster train – either that or pay for a night’s accommodation in Florence. Geez, the Italian rail system, Trenitalia, can be great and can be equally as frustrating. I discovered how to find the cheap tickets online, but you obviously should book them online to get the discount. I bought the (way too expensive ticket) for the 40 minute trip, and ended up talking to a nice Italian lawyer, who ended up helping me with directions once we arrived in Bologna.
The hostel in Bologna was out of the city centre, so made another (what felt like epic) journey to get there and was ready for bed by the time I arrived. To my pleasant surprise, the staff at this hostel were Italian yet they spoke English really well! That was all I needed to perk up again, this was the first time I had Italian people who I could ask actual questions of, about their country, the transport etc etc. I think my check in was the longest on record, about an hour all up. I asked them all the questions about Italy that thus far I’d just guessed the answers to. I found out about the divide between the North and South of Italy; why the rubbish is such an issue in Naples (more involved with the politics and the ‘Mafia’ than just people not caring); the difficulties in getting a job and possible reasons why those in customer service are still ‘serving’ when they clearly don’t want to be; and why tourists are ripped off so much. They confirmed for me that there is a general attitude in Italy that every last euro should be coerced from the tourists as much as possible (or words to that effect!) This was the first of a few occasions I heard this from an Italian, so I wasn’t imagining it, we were being purposely ripped off at every opportunity.