We had a group trip to Siena to walk around the old town and see a lecture on something. A few of us had decided to go directly from Siena to Florence for the weekend, rather than heading back to Rome. This would save us train-fare to Florence, and also get us there earlier. We met early for the bus ride up to Florence, which took a while. We arrived in Florence and were given directions as to where and when we were to meet for the lecture.
I really had no interest in the lecture, and decided that I would spend the day in Siena, rather than waste the opportunity by seeing a lecture on something I had no real interest in. We spent about 30-40 minutes trying to find a bathroom. No one seemed to have any idea where they were going and we walked around in circles for a while. I gave up and headed off on my own. Siena is a really cool city. At least the old section. It is full of narrow, cobbled streets, alleys, and interesting shops. I found a place for lunch and later ran into the rest of our little group at a cool church, which dominates the skyline (see above left and right).
I managed to convince my roommates to skip the lecture and we headed over to the Bell Tower and main square. Every year they run a horse race in the main square, which pits the various neighborhoods against each other. The race is a no-holds-barred affair, with few rules, other than that the first horse (with or without jockey) across the finish line wins. The winning team gets to fly their banners around the city for the next year. Fortunately, the race was not until the following week, so we were not completely inundated with crowds.
I am not a big fan of heights. However, I feel it is to my benefit to climb or ascend any tall buildngs I can, as a therapy of sorts. So I got tickets and climbed the Bell Tower. The climb inside was no problem, but when I got to the part where it opens up (see picture above left, halfway up the white section), it was really scary. I had to force myself to continue going. Then, when I got to the top, there was another short ladder that went to a 6' X 6' wooden platform with no sides or roof, only a large bell (see right) above you. I forced myself to go up there, and the views were fabulous. As was the pace of my heart.
I descended and met my roommates in the square. Just then, the bell rang, announcing that it was 1:00. If it had rung while I was up there, I probably would have died. I wrote out some postcards and then we wandered around some shops before meeting up with our fellow Florence travelers. We got our luggage from the bus and caught a bus up to Florence. With a bit of difficulty, we found our hotel. The street kept changing names and the numbers were in an odd sort of "order."
We had decided to go to some museums during the day. Florence is well known for its fantastic art. Of course, we had not counted on there being -- prepare yourself -- a museum-worker's strike. That is right. The entirely useless people sitting on stools in air-conditioned comfort, surrounded by priceless works of art, decided to go on strike, rather than sit around not helping people. So all of the museums, except the Duomo Museum, were closed on Saturday. So in Venice the water buses were on strike, in Florence, the museum workers. Doomed I tell you.
We headed over to the Duomo, and saw the Ghiberti doors on the Baptistry, which are quite cool. We then climbed the Duomo Tower (see right). This is quite tall and required a couple of rest stops. Of course it affords an excellent view of the city. We headed back down and then walked over to the Duomo Mueseum, which is government run and thus was open despite the strike.
The Duomo Museum had a number of interesting works of art, and was arranged in an interesting manner, with lots of open spaces and good light. Among other things, the Duomo Museum had the original Ghiberti Doors. There are two sets of doors, the rather plain ones (see left) and then the high-relief doors (see below right) that are also in the Duomo Museum. The second set are much more detailed and seem to have a far more optimistic look to them.
We left the Duomo Museum and wandered about the city for a while. Florence is full of cool Piazzas and a famous bridge, which we did not go to. We did head over to the Piazza della Signoria, which is home to a remarkable collection of statues (see below), including a copy of Michelangelo's David. The square is a huge tourist trap, full of overpriced cafes and shops full of junk. You can also get your picture taken with 14th Century courtiers for a couple of Euro. We skipped the honor, but I did pick up a few postcards. I also saw a poster of Van Gogh's Starry Night, which cost € 1.50, and noted that it was not authentic. Bummer. I thought for a moment that I could pick up an original Van Gogh for a pittance, but it was not to be.
We headed back to the hotel and then walked over to the leather market, which was only a couple of blocks from the hotel. I did not particularly need anything, but a couple of the people were interested in getting leather jackets. We did a bit of shopping and a bit of haggling, and I helped one of the girls get an extra 30% off an item she wished to buy.
I got up early and headed over to the Academy Museum, home of Michelangelo's David. I arrived at 7:30 a.m., and was the first person in line. The doors did not open until 8:20, but I wanted to make sure I was able to get in early before the crowds. You can call up and get reservations and cut to the head of the line. However, this would require calling someone who probably spoke limited English and I didn't have a phone card. After a little while a few more people showed up, including a few with reservations.
At 8:20 I had my money out, exact change, and as soon as they let the people with reservations in, I went to the ticket counter, got my ticket and headed right for David. I was the only one in the room, except for a guard off to one side, for several minutes. It was really incredible. David was the first sculpture by Michelangelo, and was carved out of a discarded piece of marble that was flawed. It is difficult to describe what it is about the statue that evokes such powerful feelings, but it is truly a masterpiece. The dimensions are such that despite the statue's size, it appears to be properly proportioned when you look up at it. Of special note are the hands, which are much larger and stronger than normal. This was done to give the viewer an idea of how David was able to defeat the much larger Goliath.
David is also interesting because the figure is at rest. Prior to this statue, David was always seen in motion. There were several other pieces by Michelangelo in the Acedemy, and I breezed through the museum unhindered by crowds, who were now heading to see David. I saw the entire place in about 30 minutes. I then headed over to the Uffizi. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the museum had been open for some time and I had to wait in line for almost an hour.
I zoomed around the Uffizi, popping in and out of the numerous rooms as quickly as possible. I had to catch a train at 1:00 to Pisa, and still needed to go back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and then find the train station. There were a number of famous works in the Uffizi, of particular note was Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which was very large, covering an entire wall of one room. After seeing the Birth of Venus, I headed out and back to the hotel. I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the train station. Finding my way in and to the proper track was something of an adventure in-and-of itself, but I made it on time and caught my train.
Perhaps this would be the appropriate time to tell of my adventures in getting a ticket to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When I arrived in Rome, a month earlier, I had made a number of attempts to get tickets to climb the tower. I had seen an article stating that it was open to tourists again after several years of shoring up the base and keeping it from falling over. I also knew that reservations were necessary and only a couple of hundred people were allowed up each day.
So I called the reservation number listed on the web, but they only spoke Italian. So I had one of the teachers call for me. However, the woman said that you could only make reservations over the web. I had already been to the website, which was not to start taking reservations until July 1, 2002 . . . the day I intended to go.
Fortunately, with the museums closed on Saturday, my roommate decided to go to Pisa on Saturday and spend Sunday in Florence going to the museums. He got me a ticket to climb the Leaning Tower, but I had to be there by 3:00. I arrived with time to spare, and found out that if I had not gotten a ticket in advance, I would not have been able to climb it until 6:00, which would have resulted in a lot of time sitting around with nothing to do, and a later train back to Rome.
Walking up the tower was really strange. The steps were old and extremely worn, but was really weird was that because the staircase is circular, and the tower leans, at some points you are climbing up the tower, and yet the staircase is nearly flat, and you are gaining very little actual elevation. Once we got to the top we walked around, taking in the views. There were about 15-20 people allowed up the tower at a time.
The top does not lean quite as much as other parts of the tower, because the tower is somewhat banana shaped. The building started to lean early in the construction, and the architect added weight to the other side in an attempt to straighten it out. However, this only exacerbated the problem, as the tower was leaning because it was on unstable ground. More weight just made it sink more. Eventually, they built the tower at an angle so that it would appear more straight.
There are bells on each side of the tower, and they are interesting because the bells are level with the ground and not with the floor of the tower (see above left). In addition to the top floor, you can walk up a narrow stair inside the top wall that then turns into a small spiral staircase (see right). This leads you up to the rim of the top wall. Of course I had to climb to the very top. Depending on which side of the tower you are on, you either seem to be hanging over nothing, or looking straight down at the side of the tower.
We climbed back down and I retrieved my stuff from the baggage locker. In addition to the Leaning Tower, there is also a Duomo (seen above in the first Pisa picture). The Duomo was damaged in an earthquake, and you can see the repairs that were done to the dome. I did not bother going into the Duomo, and there is not much else of great interest in Pisa. So I went back to the bus stop and caught a bus to the train station and a train back to Rome. There were a couple of women with small children at the bus stop and apparently they were pickpockets. A couple of the other tourists had almost been robbed. The kids carried small pieces of cardboard that they would bump you with while they grabbed your valuables.