Towns / Cities Visited: 150
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 20,786
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,843,148
Today was to be one of those days. One of those days where, because my mum only had six weeks to cram in as much adventuring as possible with us, we would be attempting the always vaguely stressful task of visiting two towns in a day. This, of course, meant that we rose early and, packing our bags into the car, bid a very fond farewell to Florence. As we drove away, I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened. Florence had been one of those special places that takes up residence in your heart; the kind of place you just know you would be poorer for should you never get to see it again. Still, we couldn’t stay forever, and thus we trundled off, first to drop our bags off for safe keeping with our new Airbnb hosts, then onwards to the historic town of Lucca.
So, ‘Why Lucca?’ I hear you ask. Well, this little beauty has a couple of draw cards, aside from simply being a beautiful, old, Tuscan city, of course. Firstly, it is known as ‘the City of 100 Churches’, because, funnily enough, it has an absurd amount of churches given its relatively small size. Seriously, there is only around 88,000 residents: that’s one church for every 880 people. Secondly, it sports a rather impressive in-tact city wall, and it was here we headed first when we arrived. Now, there has been a wall here since as far back as 180 BC; however, the current wall dates from the 16th century. It was originally used as a fortification to protect the city, but when it was no longer required as a defensive garrison, come the 19th century, it was, thanks to a couple of noteworthy ladies of the past, converted into an area of civil use, remaining as such to this day. Whereas so many other cities let their walls fall to ruin, or be dismantled for building materials, the wall in Lucca, which is remarkably wide, is topped by a peaceful path, wide enough for a car to drive along, although only authorised vehicles are allowed up there.
Making our way along the outside of the stoic brick walls in search of an entrance, it was almost easy to forget their original purpose. Especially when you look up to see trees growing atop them; more elevated park than towering protection at this point. That being said, as we passed the narrow moat which runs at its foot, wound towards the thick wooden doors which hang at one of the six old gates, and passed through the strong tunnel which once served to defend against the entrance of unwanted enemies, we were reminded of the important role the wall once fulfilled. Large banners on the outer had informed us that the three days prior had seen the town hosting a, as I like to call it, ‘Nerd Convention’ (think Comicon style revelry for dedicated fans of everything from the mainstream to the obscure of fantasy and fun), and as a result there was a large amount of empty temporary stalls in the process of being dismantled. As fun as I’m sure the convention would have been, it was nice to know we wouldn’t have to swim through the hundreds of thousands of people who had attended it.
Inside the safety of the city, we headed up to the top of the walls to find more remnants of the convention, although aside from partially blocking the view, they offered little annoyance. Disregarding them, we began our wander around the sweeping path which encircles the city from its lofty height. Not only is the wall wide enough to have its path flanked on both sides by trees, half of which were in the process of losing their brightly coloured autumnal leaves, it is also, at points, around ten metres tall, and offers a unique way to survey the city below from all angles. It wasn’t just us enjoying the walk that morning, and we passed many a cute couple rugged up and enjoying a stroll, and a good handful of locals out with their canine companions or riding their bicycles. It was tranquil, and we took our time enjoying the view, not only out over the surrounding area, but inwardly, where church spires rise above the typical green shuttered, yellow hued, red brick roofed buildings, with frightening regularity.
By the time we had made it halfway around the town, we decided to descend into the heart of Lucca to look around. After all, we didn’t have the time to meander all day; this was not our only destination. That being said, we took our time winding through the narrow, cobbled streets, catching glimpses of some of the famed churches as they popped in and out of view. It is impossible not to be enamoured by the quaint beauty of Lucca the deeper you delve. The buildings may now house more modern commodities, but their facades still hark back to eras past, unsullied by modern exteriors.
As engrossed as we were, our stomachs felt the need to make their emptiness known, and we searched, somewhat in vain, for somewhere to grab a quick pizza. It seemed almost as though the restaurants here had made so much money off the influx of visitors over the previous weekend, that they had collectively decided to shut up shop for the day to recover. Eventually, my mum, eagle eyed as she is, spotted a tiny trattoria with doors open, and, to our luck, the tempting aroma of wood-fired pizza wafted out to meet us as we wandered over. It was a cute little place, the kind of restaurant where you know it’s just some little old Italian couple doing what they’ve been doing best for the past five decades. Although the presence of a Hawaiian pizza on the menu made it clear they catered, much to my partner’s pleasure, to the sometimes questionable tastes of tourists, the product they turned out was outstanding. There’s something to be said for fresh ingredients treated with respect, and despite me knowing the disdain many Italian’s have for pineapple defiling a perfectly good pizza, they even managed to outdo most other places on that front too.
Fat and happy, we had to concede that the day was wearing on, and we needed to ensure we were at our next destination before 4pm in order to make it to our booking for one of Italy’s most notable attractions. Thus it was, that we managed with a little difficulty to make our way out of the rabbit warren of the old town and back to our car. A half hour drive and we were soon parking outside the ageing walls of another historic city, although this one is far more famous the world over; Pisa. Its wall may have been far less impressive, but as we hurried on through, amidst the flocks of tourists, we soon spotted its architecturally questionable landmark and joyfully scurried towards it.
Emerging into Piazza dei Miracoli, all three of us had to take a second to really drink in the scene before us. This sweeping, open area is the home of four of the city’s most important Catholic destinations; not only the Tower of Pisa, but also Pisa Cathedral, Pisa Baptistry, and the monumental cemetery. Ignoring the countless tourists posing for their obligatory photo to illustrate how they either held up, pushed over, or otherwise interacted with the leaning campanile, and stepping around the indentured Insta-hubbies contorting into impossible shapes to snap the perfect freeze-frame of their other half, we strolled towards the towering beauty of the cathedral. With some time to spare, and our tickets to the Tower of Pisa including entrance to the religious behemoth before us, we circled around its exterior before joining the line to go in.
The original church here was constructed in the 11th century, but numerous enlargements and restorations occurred over the years, and the majority of what you see today is from the 16th century. Some older elements still remain though, including the door of Saint Rainerius which sits at the entrance closest to the Tower of Pisa, and dates back to 1180. It is also the only door which survived the 16th century fire which ravaged the church. In disturbingly unsurprising fashion, the original construction was funded largely by the spoils taken from fighting the Muslims in Sicily in 1063; a common occurrence in a time when religious war was a mainstay in Europe. In the end, it seems almost ironic that a place considered to be a sanctuary, a place of peace and beauty, was erected from blood money. Anyway, on to less morally questionable things.
Italy, like many other countries in Europe, historically had a fair amount of one-upmanship in play, especially when it came to the erection of churches, and the rivalry between Florence and Pisa was fierce. Both city’s religious complexes play host to the matching set of cathedral, baptistry and bell tower, and yet they both have their own unique beauty. Whereas the colours of the cathedral’s facade here might be a little more muted, the ability to view it from a distance, a luxury impossible in Florence, does allow you to appreciate its thoughtful architecture as a whole. Much like its Florentine cousin, it also boasts massive bronze doors depicting biblical scenes, as well as enviable masonry and stone carvings as decoration; however, where Florence cathedral is all show on the outside yet sparse on the inside, Pisa proves the age old adage of ‘its whats on the inside that counts’.
Finally reaching the front of the queue, we stepped inside, mouths gaping. Honestly though, how can you not be gobsmacked when the ceiling above the nave is gilded to the high heavens, and lit by the warm afternoon sun so fully that it almost seems to be illuminated by something otherworldly. The aisles on either side are separated from the pews by massive columns, and provide a sheltered place from which to admire the countless biblical painting which line the walls. The intricately detailed pulpit guarded by stone lions was actually dismantled and removed at the start of the 17th century, but was thankfully rebuilt and returned, minus a few important pieces, namely the stairs, in 1926. Every ornament and artwork here is a pleasure for the senses, from the elaborate chandeliers, to the fresco of the ascension in the central dome ceiling, to the enormous image of Christ behind the altar, surrounded by yet more gilding. The entire place is everything you would expect from the extravagant Catholics of the past who believed that in funding grand temples to their God, they might in some way find more favour.
Leaving the cathedral, we emerged back into the square, taking a little time to admire the architecture of the baptistry before wandering off to buy an interim gelato to fill in the small time gap between then and our tower climb. Cloaking our bags as the nearby office, we made our way past the armless bronze statue of a fallen angel, and to the base of the oh so famous leaning tower, who’s exterior matches its church neighbour. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the construction of the tower began in the 12th century, and because no one seemingly put much effort into checking the suitability of the ground at the building site, it began to sink immediately, becoming noticeable when they were only at the second floor level. Construction halted for around a century at this point, due mainly to ongoing conflicts with neighbouring cities Lucca, Genoa, and Florence. Luckily this halt allowed the soil beneath the tower to settle, and it is this which prevented the otherwise inevitable collapse of the tower. Still, instead of stopping construction to fortify and straighten it, they just kept on going, and by the time the tower was completed in the 14th century the weight of the 56 metre tower and the massive bells it holds had already caused it to sink to a significant lean. That being said, the architects did try to counter the lean slightly, by making some of the upper levels taller on one side than the other, but that mainly just served to make the tower curved. By 1990 the lean had reached an angle of 5.5 degrees, at which point they sensibly thought to stabilise it to prevent collapse by removing soil from beneath the higher side in order to reduce the tilt. It now sits more comfortably at 3.97 degrees. Although it sounds like an imperceptible slant, the lean actually means that there is an almost one metre difference in height on either side. In an amusing twist, the tower has survived four significant earthquakes in its lifetime, which seems impossible, except that it was actually the soft soil which causes its lean which helped lessen the vibration and protected it from destruction.
For obvious reasons they can only allow a certain amount of people climb the tower at any one time, in order to reduce further weight strain and excessive wear and tear, and, as such, you can only enter with a booked ticket at your assigned time slot. Funnelling in with our group, we took a moment to look up through the hollow centre of the building before beginning our ascent. Now, its hard to explain how weirdly unsettling it is to climb a spiral staircase in a leaning building. There is something about your centre of gravity changing with each step which makes it feel like you’re stumbling around drunk. With that said, the idea of climbing this tower drunk sounds terrifying. One second we were leaning towards the outer wall to stay upright, the next we were shifting towards the centre, but eventually we completed our topsy-turvy journey of the 296 steps and emerged to the open air roof to find ourselves amongst the massive bells the tower was built to hold. From this vantage point we were gifted with an unparalleled view down over the cathedral, albeit a little wonky, and we sat down to enjoy it for a long, lingering moment.
Common courtesy meant we eventually yielded our spots and made the journey back to more even footing. It must be said here that walking down the stairs is far more unnerving than ascending them, and there is an almost constant feeling that you will fall and continue down in the least graceful tumble imaginable. The whole ordeal was almost nauseating, especially as someone who gets seasick.
With the sun sinking low we said goodbye to Pisa, retrieved our bags from our hosts, and settled in for the night in our temporary home, chatting happily about our trip thus far over a bowl of slapdash chicken soup. As I flicked through the photos on my camera, I thought once more about the time we had spent perched atop the tower. It all seemed so surreal; not only because we were finally there, sitting on a landmark we’d seen a thousand times before in photos, but because it was the first time in a while I had stopped to consider just how removed I was from my normal life. I was on the other side of the world, and despite being sandwiched between two of the only people in this world who feel like home to me, I was so very far away from everything and everyone else who had previously made up ‘home’ to me. As strange as it was though, it was in that moment of quiet, with the houses below on an unfamiliar tilt, my inner ear unsure of just which way gravity was directing it, and surrounded by chatter in languages I did not understand, that I found a rare moment of inner peace. A moment where I was reminded that it does not matter how out of place I might feel at times, or how off kilter life can become; I am so very lucky. Lucky to be able to see the beauty of the world with my own eyes, and lucky to be able to do so with people who love me.