January 20, 2016: Pisa to Rome
When I go into the kitchen this morning, I see right away what Alessandro and his guest were whipping up so noisily last night. On the table, in a huge baking pan, is a crumb cake with about a third of it missing. Beside it is a note : “We made a crumble, and there is too much. Have it!”
I’m not sure how much he intended for us to have — surely not the whole thing, which we really wouldn’t want to do in any case. But we each have a piece and it’s quite tasty. So I leave him a note thanking him for the cake and the hospitality, lay the keys beside it, and we’re on our way.
On the streets nearby is an RV, the first we’ve seen in Europe so far.
But we’re not here to admire vehicles, so we’re on to the main event: one of the most famous buildings ever constructed. And its fame is largely due to an unintended feature.
It’s become obligatory, when visiting the Leaning Tower, to photograph yourself posing as if trying to prop it up.
It has become such a cliche that you’ll see people trying to come up with novel ways of doing it. We see one fellow lying on the ground and propping it up with his feet. I try to pose as if holding it on my back, but we can’t get it to look right, so I just settle for an attempt to catch it as it falls.
The tower’s unique feature of obliquity has become so much the focus of tourist photography that people sometimes overlook the astonishing detail revealed by zooming in closer.
Furthermore, postcard views tend to gloss over the fact that the tower is not the only architectural treasure on the block.
Nor is it the oldest. Constructed as a bell tower for the adjacent cathedral, the tower was completed in 1372 after a 199-year period of intermittent construction.
The domed baptistry was built between 1152 and 1363.
And the cathedral itself was begun in 1064 and consecrated in 1118.
It occurs to us that, for better and for worse, the history of Europe is the history of churches. And as individuals who don’t do religion at all, we expect to be entering churches more during this month-long trip than we have in our entire adult lives up until now. Fortunately, this cathedral shows that there is plenty to make the effort worthwhile.
There is, for example, the much celebrated pulpit, sculpted between 1301 and 1310. As ancient as that sounds, it was two centuries after the cathedral itself was built!
Once we’ve concluded our tour of this incredibly historic block (formally known as the Piazza dei Miracoli), we still have plenty of time to kick up our heels a bit on the streets of Pisa.
We notice the walls of fortification built beginning almost 900 years ago, and apparently repaired with new layers over the centuries. In one place, we believe we can single out 7 layers of construction.
We also stumble upon the ruins of a 2000-year-old archaeological site known as the Baths Of Nero, though they actually were not built during his reign.
Perched in a rather odd location on the banks of the Arno River is yet another historic church, the Santa Maria della Spina. It’s much smaller, but equally grand in its own way. Built in 1230, it was renamed in 1333 (according to a plaque) in honor of a thorn from the crown of Christ that was brought here, presumably with the price tag removed, but later transported elsewhere. Originally built as a church for sailors and situated down closer to water level, this chapel was relocated to its more protected spot in 1871.
Getting to the train station with plenty of time to spare, we initially try waiting in the frigid waiting room, but then decide we might as well be out strolling the few blocks nearby. When we get ready to eat lunch, we discover that the marinated olives we bought last night have leaked into my bag and made quite an oily mess, which we have difficulty cleaning up. We gobble down half the olives just so we won’t have to deal with them any more, the little varmints.
After a pleasant ride, we arrive at the central station in Rome and, with a bit of difficulty, find our way to our new home about half a mile away. It’s an older apartment building in the heart of the city, next to a bingo hall/ slot machine parlor that I might be tempted to investigate.
At one point in walking to the station, we’re waiting at a red light, but since there’s no traffic coming, several pedestrians cross the street. I shrug and say “When in Rome” and begin walking across myself. Kimberly follows suit, giving the best Kimberly laugh of the trip so far.
We’re staying in a charming flat that looks out onto a busy street. Our host was supposedly a man I’ll call Giorgio, but instead we are met by a 50-ish woman I’ll call Helena (I’ve changed both names for reasons I’ll make clear later) who is friendly and extremely helpful.
When we ask for advice about getting around town, she sits us down at the kitchen table and gives us a 45-minute seminar on maximizing our time and money with a circular walking tour, and offers some really helpful hints. She advises, for instance, against paying to go inside the Coliseum, which basically just has a bunch of rocks; the real beauty, she says, is the exterior, which we can see for free.
I ask her about using the washing machine, and she instructs me to just leave our laundry on the floor beside it, and she’ll wash it for us tomorrow while we’re out. We’re hesitant to accept such an offer; we don’t want to trouble her, and if we’re out and about, we’ll be wearing some of our clothes so they won’t all get clean. But she’s insistent, and it’s the best offer we’ve got.
She gives us the key, which is even more elaborate than some of the other European keys we’ve seen — practically a work of art.
Our room is cozy enough and our bed is quite comfy. The only problem is that, contrary to what was advertised, it isn’t really exactly entirely a private room as such. There’s another room next to ours, and in order to get to it, the other guests have to pass through our room. Only a folding screen shields our bed from potential prying eyes. It’s a bit awkward, but the guests occupying the other room are very considerate, and minimize the problems.
They’re a Danish couple, graduate students in geology, and they’re on their way home tomorrow. They join us in the kitchen at dinner, chomping on their Danish sausages as we nibble our vegetarian fare, and we compare notes.