2nd June 2014
Tickets to Tuscany
“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable!”
This sentiment expressed by Shakespeare does not immediately spring to mind when confronted with your nearest and dearest sprawled in front of the television watching football but it is definitely appropriate when gazing as the original statue of David in the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence. I remember arriving in an empty piazza, buying a ticket and going straight in. But that was a few years ago. Now you have to queue for at least an hour or plan ahead, book online and pay a booking fee that is almost as much as the ticket. Prices vary a lot but the cheapest are available from the official Florence Museums website.
On a recent visit to Tuscany organised by Solos Holidays Ltd I was based in Hotel Biondi in Montecatini Terme. This delightful spa town is on the tourist conveyor belt and every evening a convoy of coaches arrived and disgorged hundreds of passengers in front of their hotels and return early the next morning to whisk them away again. Our hotel was no exception and breakfast was organised like a military operation as eighty Chinese tourists bustled into the restaurant, munched their way through hard boiled eggs and croissants then filled their flasks with hot water and left. Once they had gone the staff relaxed and were happy to bring us excellent scrambled eggs and bacon accompanied by fresh fruit, croissants and warm pastries. We were not rushing anywhere that first morning so we had time to explore Montecatini Terme.
Well-placed to visit other better known Tuscan towns such as Florence, Lucca and Pisa this town is considered to be the biggest spa town in Italy and famous for its thermal waters has a lot to offer its visitors. Its environs included a large park dotted with spa buildings some of which are now used for other purposes such as the civic hall and an art gallery. As we strolled around the park we stopped to admire the extensive grounds of the elegant Terme Tettuccio, listen to the live music and watch some visitors dancing in the spacious hall. Later in the week we returned to while away a few hours in the gardens, sample the waters and then enjoy a coffee in the splendid café to take away the taste.
That first day our objective was the medieval village of Montecatini Alto perched on top of the hill above us and a ride on the old funicular railway which dates back to the end of the 1800s to get there. The views travelling up there are spectacular and on arrival most people make their way to the pretty village square surrounded by restaurants. My favourite is the ristorante il Giardino that has a garden terrace at the back with stunning views of the Tuscan countryside. After lunch we strolled back down the hill into the town.
Siena was our destination the next day. This beautiful medieval city has thrived on rivalry first with Florence as it strove to build a bigger and better cathedral than its arch enemy. And secondly between the seventeen contrades or city wards of the city to triumph in the famous horse race, il palio, that takes place in the main square il campio. This race is run twice a year on July 02 and August 16 and as only ten of the seventeen contrades can compete competitors are decided my lottery. The race is a religious event and in July it is run is to celebrate the deliverance of the city from the Florentines after praying to the Virgin Mary (Palio di Provenzano in honour of the Madonna di Provenzano who has a church in Siena). In August it celebrates the Assumption (Palio dell’Assunta). The riders, dressed in the appropriate colours, are bareback. They often fall off but as it is the first horse past the post with or without its rider that wins this does not matter. In the past when there has been a dead heat the cup has been cut in two but now they can decide who won by watching a recording of the race. Each contrade has its own courtyard containing the contrade office, the stable for the horse and a church and the horse is taken into the church to be blessed before the race. They all have their own colours and emblems which are often animals feature in decorations and flags in the streets around these courtyards.
I was keen to see just how ornate the cathedral was and I was not disappointed, it was breath-taking. Originally it had been intended to extend the nave to make the structure bigger but this plan had been abandoned and the unfinished nave now offers visitors a panoramic view of the city – panorama dal facciatone. Visitors are allowed to climb the narrow spiral staircase in groups of twenty eight and then emerge on a narrow walkway above the city. Access is through the museum and as long queues often gather at the entrance it is best to make this the first of the five attractions included in the composite ticket for Siena cathedral that also includes the crypt and the baptistery.
The seaside resort of Viareggio is easily accessible from Montecatini Terme on the train. Travel by train in Italy is relatively simple once you have mastered the art of buying tickets and then validating them at the station before boarding the train. Most stations do have a ticket office but opening hours are few and far between and more and more reliance is placed on the large machines that speak to you in a variety of languages. They are not ideal for groups as the maximum number of travellers per ticket is six and it takes a long time to buy one ticket as a lot of choices have to be made during the process. At least they warn you at the start of the process if they are card only, coin only or all types of payment.
On arrival in Viareggio we walked towards the sea front. On our way we were drawn into a local market and marvelled at the variety of fresh vegetables on offer. At the end of that street we found another, larger market the filled the main square. Finally we got to the beach and had a coffee at the first bar we came to. The long sandy beach is well protected by bars, restaurants and changing hut protecting concessions that require payment to use one of the many sunbeds lined up on the sand. We just walked along the beach towards the marina where we stopped to take pictures of ‘The Waiting’ a sculpture by Inaco Biancalana that immortalises the anxious wait of the family of a seafarer. We found a good restaurant for lunch, Pizzeria Ristorante Eden on the wide pedestrian promenade just behind the first row of buildings on the beach – those on the beach were fast food places.
Our visit to Florence also started with a train journey from Montecatini Terme but by then we were all experts and purloined a block of seats on the top level of the train so we could enjoy the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Our walking tour of Florence included the main sites, Santa Maria Nouvella, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Signoria and finished on the Ponte Vecchio. By then we were ready for some rest and refreshment and a nice trattoria, Totõ ristorante dal 1968, very close to the bridge was ideal. It looked tiny on the outside but it was very spacious inside. I thoroughly enjoyed my large ravioli filled with mashed potato and covered in a meat ragu.
On a previous visit to Florence I had spent a very rewarding afternoon at the Palazzo Pitti which features a variety of attractions including the royal apartments, the Palatine gallery, a fascinating costume exhibition and the famous Boboli Gardens. This magnificent Palazzo was built around 1440 by Luca Pitti to challenge the hated Medici family, and was the largest and most impressive private residence in the city of Florence. It does not require any thought to visit this monument as it does not attract the crowds so pre-booking is not necessary and a three day ticket gives visitors plenty of time to appreciate the treasures within. However, on this occasion I decided to get above the city and climbed the 417 steps to the top of the Bell Tower which was a very rewarding experience.
Lucca was a refreshing change after the heat and the crowds in Florence and in particular the garden topped walls that encircle it. These walls are a legacy of Elisa Bonaparte who ruled the principality briefly at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They were built because she could not have the tree-lined boulevards she craved due to the medieval construction of the town. She also left her mark on the Piazza Grande, a square that has always been the centre of political power in Lucca. During her reign the square was enlarged by demolishing houses, warehouses, a tower, the archives, some shops and even a church to give greater visibility and more prestige to the Ducal Palace which today is the administrative centre for the province of Lucca. Trees were also planted to screen the other buildings with the result this space is more reminiscent of France than Italy.
After the tranquillity of Lucca we were plunged back into a stream of tourists as we made our way to the Piazza dei Miracoli on the outskirts of Pisa and home of its famous Leaning Tower. Our bus had parked in a large bus park and we had transferred to a small shuttle. After running the gauntlet of a street lined with souvenir stalls I went straight to the ticket office to get tickets for the cathedral (even though entrance is free). They only issue fifty free tickets for each slot and they cannot be booked in advance so groups who only stay there a short while are unlikely to be successful and we were not. However, it is possible to get in by buying a ticket for the Baptistery which includes free entrance into the cathedral at any time. We had pre-booked the Leaning Tower and when my guests went off I became the bag lady which was more convenient than them having to join a queue as every bag has to be checked into the cloakroom.
Pistoia is sometimes referred to as a “little Florence” for its amazing concentration of art and architecture in a much smaller city and we decided to test this claim. It is true – its main square, Piazza del Duomo, is surrounded by some terrific examples of medieval architecture, including the Cathedral of San Zeno and its bell tower and the 14th century Gothic Baptistery of San Giovanni in Corte. We visited the Civic Museum which is housed in the beautiful old Civic Hall. In the courtyard of this building is The Miracle, a bronze statue one of a series of horse and rider sculptures by Marino Marini which was his way of narrating history and a gift to his home town. The shops were crammed with Pinocchio souvenirs, a reminder that the nearby town of Collodi was the birthplace of Carlo Lorenzini the creator of this character using his nom de plume Carlo Collodi.
In the evenings it was very pleasant strolling into Montecatini to eat at one of a good variety of restaurants to suit all tastes and pockets. My particular favourites are the very popular restaurant Corsaro Verde which serves delicious sea food, Il Vicolo is housed in a beautiful building fronted by a small garden for guests who prefer to eat outside and restaurant da Lorenzo where I had a very unusual pasta dish – paccheri (large macaroni) with curried duck which was delicious. The town also features a programme of concerts through the summer which are usually held in the Excelsior Spa, Terme Tettuccio or Teatro Verdi – all interesting venues.
Your trip to Tuscany may not be the success you dreamed off without a few pre-booked tickets but look beyond the obvious and treasures are waiting to be revealed.