Italy in all its glory
By Susie R. Cuñada
Pisa and Tuscany
The passing landscapes on the way to Tuscany were spectacular. We passed through
numerous tunnels, 28 to be exact, that cut through under the hills. This particular
highway was called “Highway to the Sun” built by Mussolini, that runs from Milan to
Naples. Our route, however, took us across the plains of the Po River and traversed the
Apennines, the hilly backbone of Italy, to reach the Arno valley. En route, we heard the
informative tutorial about the famous Chianti wines that make this region so famous.
Following the river westwards, we stopped at Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower
where elaborate steps have been taken to prevent this landmark from falling over. I can
hardly contain my excitement. As you know, it has always been my dream to have my
picture taken against the leaning tower. As Shona aptly described it, the leaning tower is
the most defective work of art in Italy. Florentines hate it so much that they want to topple
When we got to Pisa, we boarded Disney-like trams that ran from the parking lot to the old
city walls. Driving through part of the town showed that Pisa was definitely working
class and not a very attractive city.
Once we got off the tram, we walked along the old city walls to the main gate and
archway to get into the Campo dei Miracoli (The Field of Miracles). Walking along the wall
was an experience unto itself. It was like being in a bad Turkish bazaar with trinket
shops everywhere, or running a gauntlet, with vendors vying for your attention nearly
every step of the way.
Once we got into the gate, the Tower, Duomo (Cathedral) and Baptistry came into
view. It was beautiful and the view stood in stark contrast from the carnival
atmosphere just outside the gate. All three of the major buildings are located in a wide
expanse of lawn with pathways that lead to each of the buildings.
Ricky and I then took turns in taking pictures, including the incredibly tacky but fun
shot of ourselves positioned in such a way as to look as though we are holding up the
tower. As with most people, Ricky was intent on getting several good shots of me with
the Leaning Tower, thereby fulfilling one of my two major dreams in life. The second
was to get back to Vancouver and land safely.
We had about 1-2hr stop and also had to get lunch. So there wasn’t enough time to
buy tickets to see the insides of these buildings. I may live to regret missing the chance
to climb the Leaning Tower. And that continues to haunt me until this day.
Later, we then all loaded back onto the little train and back to the bus.
For those of us who opted for the wine tasting tour, we were dropped off at the
winery, Fattoria Il Poggio. This is a working olive oil farm and winery. We met the tour
guide at the farm and walked up into the Olive Tree Grove. There we stood in the middle
of a grove of olive trees with views of other groves and vineyards dotting the
surrounding hills listening to the guide explain why this region produced the best olive
oil in all of Italy, and why she thinks Italy makes the best olive oil in the whole world.
We then traveled to the spa resort town of Montecatini Terme and to our hotel, El
Prinsipe, where we received our boat anchors as hotel keys and went to our rooms to
relax and get ready for dinner at the hotel.
As a backgrounder, Montecatini Terme, known all over the world for its spas, natural
springs and thermal baths, is the ideal destination for all those looking for a rustic place
that provides tranquility and complete rejuvenation. Basically known as a summer
resort, this place in Tuscany enjoys mild weather all through the year.
After another early wake-up call and breakfast, we boarded the bus for the trip to
Florence (called Firenze by the Italians). I had been looking forward to this stop with
great anticipation as there was so much to see in this city.
We first went to Piazza di San Giovanni to see the outside of the Duomo and the
Baptistry, two magnificent buildings. The dome, along with Giotto's Campanile, is the
landmark that defines Florence. On the east side of the baptistry, facing the Duomo, are
the famous bronze doors, dubbed the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo when he first
saw them. The doors on the baptistry are replicas, with the originals on display at the
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo not far away. The doors are comprised of ten panels that
depict stories from the Old Testament. Simply put, the work is stunning!!!
Florence is a great city for walking. There are little shops of every stripe lining
streets and alleys, from fruit stands to jewelry stores. So we walked through many
scenic alleys on our way to Piazza della Signoria, the original location of Michelangelo's David, now
replaced with a replica. We also viewed the other statues which commemorate the major historical
events of the city, such as the famous "The Rape of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna, which is a
fascinating story on its own. The Fontana di Nettuno, or Fountain of Neptune, dominates the plaza, which
was essentially the epicenter of the tour. Everywhere we went subsequently was routed from this center.
If you’re in Florence for the first time, you may be overwhelmed (as I was). It’s the crowd! It’s the
handbags! Or the leather jackets and boots! And if you are combining art, culture, and shopping on time
constraints, you will most certainly be dizzy (as I was).
Since we hardly had time to do any shopping on previous days, that was exactly what we had planned
to do while in Florence. I couldn’t disappoint my credit card company, right? But as it turned out, we were
in for a big disappointment. The leather jacket and leather shoes that we sought were beyond my reach.
Their prices were simply outrageous! Would you be willing to spend 900 euros for a leather jacket or …..
600 euros for a pair of leather boots? I don’t think so! We’re talking about euros here, folks, not dollars.
Besides, we are allowed to bring back goods to Canada worth only C$750 each. And I wasn’t prepared to
pay more in taxes!!! But we didn’t come back empty handed, though. We did make purchases for the kids
and Ricky bought some shirts for himself. So far, I behaved myself and didn’t succumb to my weakness
for splurging. Florence didn’t succeed in tickling my extravagance bone. Not one bit…
After fulfilling my gelato (nutella flavor) obligation, we all then assembled at the Santa Croce Basilica,
after which we trekked back to the bus which was parked along the Arno River and back to our hotel to
prepare for dinner.
About an hour later, we boarded the bus for our optional dinner at Pietre Cavete, a restaurant on top of
the mountain. It is a beautiful property and you could see the rolling Tuscan hills down below and lots of
medieval walled cities in the surrounding hills.
The meal was a true Tuscan Feast – best bruschetta I have ever had in my life, a different kind of
pasta, Florentine steak that melts in your mouth, and a yummy dessert. I just have to mention one thing
that really impressed me about this tour. When I checked in online with Insight Vacations, I mentioned that
I’m allergic to dairy and shellfish; so guess what, without me saying anything to anyone, a dish of pasta
with no cream (just tomato sauce) was put in front of me and I got a different kind of Italian dessert (Shona
thought of everything!). I was really impressed! During dinner, the wine was ever flowing, because as
soon as one bottle was emptied, it was immediately replaced. It was also my first time to try the much-
touted drink, limoncello, that delectable lemon vodka brew that makes one tipsy after a thimbleful. I loved
it! It was simply a magical evening, full of camaraderie and fun!
All too soon it was time to head back to the bus, and music was put on and we were all singing to the
tune of “Amore”. On most vacations, you get one or two nights that are truly memorable, but it seems like
every night has been like that. The days are going by too fast! Way too fast, in fact.
As you can see, the dinner was not of the "Macaroni and Cheese" ilk. It was gourmet, it was generous,
and it was exceptional. It fit the mood and tone of the day -- classic, refined, and one for the ages. It was
the exclamation point to an incredibly memorable day. You gotta love Italy!!!
Before hitting the road towards Sorrento, we stopped in Florence at the Galleria dell’Accademia to pay
homage to the beloved Statue of David, by Michelangelo. In 1873, "The David" was moved to the
Academy from its original position in Piazza della Signoria to protect it from weather and pollution.
Statue of Neptune
|Statue of Perseus
with the head of
Security at the museum was tight, so much so that cameras were not
allowed to even be displayed, never mind used. We passed through a room that
contained partially completed works by Michelangelo. Many scholars believe
he left them in this incomplete condition purposely to show the technique he
used to create his master works. One of his more famous works, "Quattro
Prigioni" (the Four Prisoners), demonstrated his belief that his figures were
trapped in the marble and his job was only to carve away the superfluous
stone. It really was amazing to look closely at the work and see the chisel
marks created there by Michelangelo himself.
We soon entered the room containing perhaps Michelangelo's greatest
work, "David", an 18-foot tall, anatomically perfect nude male. It was
breathtaking! Especially to the women. [I noticed that the women went around
the statue twice, me included. haha]. It was incredible! The detail has to be
seen to be believed. We all commented that some of the features, like hands
and toes, seemed out of proportion to the rest of his body. However our guide
told us that originally the statue was to be displayed high on a pedestal in the
Piazza della Signoria and Michelangelo was compensating for the viewing
angles from below. He’s a genius that he simply thought of everything.
Amazing!!! It made his work even more of a marvel. It was impressive than I
imagined it would be.
Commonwealth Cemetery in Cassino
We were only in the Accademia for a little over 40 minutes and after a brief
opportunity to visit the gift shop, we were back on the road to Sorrento.
Along the way, we stopped at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Cassino. It is
a beautifully kept cemetery honoring the British, Australian and Canadian men
who died defending this area. You could see the hills in the background and the
Abbey of Montecassino at the top. Shona had explained to us how the Germans
had held the position at the Abbey during WWII and the Commonwealth troops
were sent in to try and take the position. They sustained extremely heavy
casualties, and so we knew why we were stopping at the Commonwealth
Susie and Ricky in Tuscany
Cemetery. But nothing prepared me for the feelings that washed over me once we got there. The Canadian section appeared to be
the largest contingent, with row upon row of gravestones marking young men aged 18, 19, 20 and the like. Just boys killed
defending the freedom we enjoy today.
As we walked back, I thought it had seemed like a strange stop on such an upbeat vacation, but I‘m glad they took us there. It
was a sober note on the trip, but it was a meaningful reminder of the sacrifices that were made in WWII.
From the cemetery, we went on to Sorrento. The drive down to the Naples area from Florence was uneventful if not long. We
were told by Shona on the trip down that the driving in the southern portion of the country is not to be believed. And she wasn't
lying. Right from the start you could see the difference in driving. People here were nearly suicidal in their tactics.
Thankfully, we arrived at our hotel, Grand Hotel La Pace, in one piece. The hotel is a marvel of architecture. It is "Fantasy
Island meets the Palace of Versailles." It's ostentatious and over the top in its attempt to stun and impress.
As a backgrounder, Sorrento, like many Italian resort cities, is built on a hill above the harbour. Visitors don’t come to Sorrento
for history or cathedrals or historic strolls. It is an unapologetic resort town, parading fancy shops, exquisite views and rock-
strewn beaches as its prime attractions. Traipsing around town can be a bit of nerve-wracking due to the large crowds and
absolute lack of traffic signals in town, leading those who are brave enough to drive to do so at ridiculously high speeds and with
little regard for pedestrians. However, it has a liberal view of what constitutes a beach – the coastlines are mostly just a strip of
rocks jutting into dangerous configurations. That means most sunbathing is relegated to lying on deck chairs on long piers
extending into the halcyon waters.
Nevertheless, the ambiance of the village down on the waterfront was exactly what you dream about. The seagulls were
calling and the fishermen of the village were just returning from a day on the water.
Dinner was at a very nice seaside restaurant. The food was excellent and the ambience was amazing. There was also a
keyboard player/singer who wasn’t that good. Or probably I’m just biased, having a singer for a husband. [haha] Anyway, he was
selling his CD – as was the case anywhere we had entertainment.
Anyhow, the meal began with pasta and then a form of pizza bread. This was followed by real pizza on a long board that was
displayed for us to review, then salad, followed by the main course [which was fish, it being a seafood restau], and finally dessert.
I had a different entrée compared to the rest, so again, I was deeply impressed. What a wonderful evening to end a wonderful day!!!