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February 18, 2002
A little bit of Pisa (Russell)

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Approaching the "Torre Pendente"... or as Joss calls it, the "Tipping Tower"

La Fornace, our villa here in Pontemazzori, is a wonderfully rustic self-contained two-room apartment on the upper floor of a house in the Italian countryside.  The floors are brick, the windows are shuttered in wood, and the ceiling is also brick supported by huge wooden beams.  After months of drinking bottled water in Crest, it is refreshing not only to get drinking water out of the tap, but to find that it tastes absolutely delicious.

On Sunday, February 17th, we spent the majority of the day here in the villa (we still prefer to alternate travel days with "down" days, especially for the sake of Cameron and Joss).  After a very slow wake up (no one slept very well due to a combination of motorcycle engines throughout the night and birds throughout the morning), we took a very short drive to the surrounding area to see what there is right around here.  The answer is: "Not much."  As far as we can tell, Pontemazzori itself consists of a church surrounded by several houses and farms.  So we drove five minutes to Camaiore, the nearest town to our villa, where we got lost in the maze of one-way streets while in the process of discovering that everything is closed on Sundays.  Next, we headed in the opposite direction for ten minutes up a windy hairpin-curved road to the nearby town of Montemagno on top of the nearest mountain.  There were several restaurants here, all of which were currently closed.  (As far as we can tell, every single ristorante around here is a pizzeria.)

We ended up spending the rest of the day inside the villa, much to the boys' delight.  Because of our vacation-like schedule during the past week, we conducted a rare weekend-day of home schooling, much to the boys' dismay.

Cameron and Joss at La Fornace

Monday, February 18th, ended up being much more fruitful, although it didn't start out that way.  Our plan was to drive about an hour to the Cinque Terre, one of Italy's most beautiful areas.  Unfortunately, we got up late (the church bells rang at 9:30 this morning instead of 8:00 as they did the day before), and didn't get out of the house until almost 11:00 AM.  As we rushed around getting ourselves ready, we decided to save the Cinque Terre for another day and instead take today to visit Pisa, only a half-hour away.  Once we left the house, we realized that we wouldn't have time to get any groceries at the end of the day, so we'd better get them now.  We drove to Camaiore, found nothing, and proceeded to the larger town of Viareggio, where we discovered a huge Coop supermarcato.

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The pasta aisle -- or aisles -- at Coop supermarcato.  Cameron holds a box of two-foot long pasta

By the time we re-emerged from the supermarcato, 75 euros lighter and four bags of groceries heavier, it was past noon.  We changed our minds one more time and decided to bring everything home and eat lunch before we set out again.

We finally hit the road again at about 1:30 PM to visit Pisa.  Every guidebook that we have read says that:

  1. There's almost nothing to see in Pisa besides the Torre Pendente ("Leaning Tower"), and
  2. Every visitor to Italy is almost required to go there anyway.

Knowing that the visit itself would be worth about 45 minutes, we shunned the fast -- and expensive -- autostrada (in Italy, the autostrada costs about one Euro for every ten minutes of driving time) and instead took the superstrada (the Italian equivalent of a French route nationale, or country road).  We were both amazed and amused to see numerous Italian hookers plying their trade on the side of the road, each at regularly spaced intervals.  One of them had a lawn chair and a cozy fire burning on the side of the road.  Another had a motor scooter.  But our favorite was a middle-aged woman in a fur coat, who even had her own motor home!  (On our return trip, the woman in fur was no longer on the side of the road, but a car was parked next to the motor home.)

We arrived at Pisa in mid-afternoon and had absolutely no problem finding a parking space right near the Torre Pendente.  Unlike the postcards, we were amazed to see that the Leaning Tower is completely surrounded by heavy construction equipment, and row after row after row of very cheesy souvenir stands.  We did use this opportunity to pick up our requisite souvenirs of postcards, patches, and stickers, as well as a couple of miniature Leaning Tower statuettes for the boys' statuette collections back home.

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Gail at the gauntlet of Pisa souvenir stands

La Torre Pendente, begun in 1174 by architect Bonanno Pisano, took more than 200 years to complete, and started leaning before it was finished (if you look closely, the very top part was actually constructed crooked to the rest of the tower in an attempt to make it look upright).  The tower stands 56+ metres (eight stories) high, and deviates 4+ metres from vertical.  It had begun to lean so much that the country closed it off to visitors several years ago to keep it from falling completely over.  It was just reopened last year.

The Torre Pendente -- actually a bell tower -- stands in a large field called the Campo dei Miracoli ("Field of Miracles") that also contains a cathedral, a baptistry, and several museums.  We were not able to ascend the tower because by the time we arrived all of the tour tickets were sold out, but for no charge we were able to wander the Campo at our leisure and snap photos (although we did have to keep dodging Asian tourists).  We were amazed (wow, the third time that we were amazed today!) at the number of American east coast accents we heard.

We ended up staying for a good hour and a half before we hit the road again and headed back to our villa.  If everything goes well, we may make another try for the Cinque Terre tomorrow.

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The Tipping Tower of Pisa (note how the highest story actually cheats back up vertically)


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