Friday, March 1, 2019

Florence and Pisa

Main cathedral of Florence.Our next stop in Italy was Florence. Since our Milan hotel was so close to the train station, we did not need to take a taxi or bus to get there. We just walked and then waited for a while inside the station to see which platform our bullet train will depart from.

Train to Florence.The ride itself was not especially eventful. We were all pretty impressed to see that our train was going over 300 km/hour at some points. We played a guessing game using complimentary magazines laying around, the children felt and behaved well.

From from our hotel. Duomo is on the left.Our hotel in Florence was unfortunately quite far from the center. However, we got a spacious room on the top floor, free breakfast, access to the executive lounge and this hotel had a mega whirlpool. The whirlpool was pretty much the size of a regular pool, it had nice little areas where you can lie down and get your whole body massaged by water, plus it had a traditional jacuzzi area and a waterfall. I’ve never seen pools like this one, and the water was so warm that we could stay there without much motion for two hours and not get cold.

Massive hot tub.Plus, there were very few people in the pool, so oftentimes we were the only ones there. Kids LOVED it, although I think swimming had a mild negative effect on Anna’s ears. She just finished drinking antibiotics for acute ear infection which she developed as a complication of a viral infection, and her ears started bothering her again. Luckily, garlic ear drops helped to keep the pain at bay and to heal faster.

Our women.In order to get to the center of the city, we had to take Hilton’s complimentary shuttle and then a tram. The shuttle was going once every half our or so and there were longer breaks, so it was a little annoying at times, but still the benefits of Hilton for us outweigh the sub-optimal location.

View from the top of cathedral tower.When we got to the center of Florence, we walked around, enjoying the beauty and special historic flavor of its narrow streets and old dwellings. We admired Duomo for a while.

Anna and hers and mine Florentine steak.Then we went to ZaZa — which we visited on our last trip as well — and had a nice dinner. Daniel and Anna got a Florentin steak, which was much better this time since it was more cooked through per our request. The steak itself was enormous — the size of a soccer ball. After that we walked around some more, grabbed a cab to the hotel and hit the pool.

At the stop of 414 step high tower.We dedicated the whole next day to more Florence exploration. We took 414 steps to the top of the bell tower. Everyone did a great job climbing by the way! It was really windy at the top, but the view was magnificent.

Florence.We ate lunch at some restaurant in the center. There was a Russian hostess inviting us in, and we thought that we might as well try it. I got a risotto, and it was quite delicious.

414 steps up and down.We walked for a while after lunch. Visited famous Ponte Vecchio, tried to take in the beautiful views of Arno river, window shopped little jewelry and souvenir stores.

Ponte Vecchio.We tried to find a good gelato, but for the lack of options settled on the overpriced mediocrity at the end. The only plus side was that we could eat the gelato inside, and that’s exactly what we did. We took a cab to the hotel again, and after a light snack at the executive lounge hit the pool again.

Gelato!Our last full day in Florence was supposed to be spent on visiting the world famous Ufizzi gallery. However, Aaron made us change our plans. The thing is that he heard about the tower of Pisa before visiting Italy, and was under impression that he’ll get to see it on this trip. When he found out that we were not actual planning to go there, he got a little upset and really asked us if it was possible to do it.

A LOT of gelato!When we were making our plans originally we explored that option and decided that an hour trip each way on the train was too tiresome for the children, but as I said, Aaron really wanted to go. So that’s what we did. We got to the station, bought open-ended tickets and took a train to Pisa. We had to walk for a while to get to the tower, and it was drizzling, but the children were excited.

Tower of Pisa.After looking at the tower and taking pictures, we ate lunch at the nearby restaurant, and headed back. Daniel had gnocchi with pesto and Arosha was brave enough to try them. He liked it so much that he ordered them for himself at some point later in the trip instead of his meal of preference — pasta with marinara sauce.

Our women.The children bought little souvenir towers and were extremely excited about those. We had to hurry though to make it to the train in time in order not to lose another hour for being a few minutes late, so I grabbed Anna in my hands and we ran. Unfortunately, Anna was partially obstructing my view and I managed to bump into a short pole near to the train station and fell down. Luckily, Anna was not hurt and I just got a nasty bruise on my right knee.

Pisa.We made it in time for the train, then took a cab from the train station, got light dinner at the executive lounge and finished the day with the pool again.

The next morning we headed out to Venice.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day Trip To Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa.When we were planning our trip we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should rent a car and drive or if we should stick to trains as it has worked so well for us in Japan. After thinking and thinking we decided to go ahead and get the driver’s license anyhow and possibly try to rent a car for a single day, but traveling by trains seemed like an easier and less stressful thing to deal with and that’s what we did1. We ended up not visiting any small towns, but it was the right decision for the first trip.

Tuscany.We moved from city to city by rail via bullet trains. We used public transpiration around those cities and that was definitely the right thing to do. Even though city centers are quite busy and streets are tiny that wasn’t the scary part of driving. The scary part was the fact that there are some no driving zones even though roads lead there and tourists tend to drive into those parts and get fined. Plus who wants to deal with looking for parking on vacation?

The streets of Pisa.But having a European driver’s license in hand we figured that visiting Pisa would be a great time to try renting a car for a day. We were staying in Florence for 3 nights and Pisa is only 60 miles away. We weren’t quite sure if we’ll want to spend the day outside of Florence or if we’ll want to spend that day in Florence itself. However several things tipped the scale towards a drive to Pisa.

The streets of Pisa.First we arrived to Florence pretty early on Sunday. Somehow we budgeted the whole day for the train ride, but since the ride wasn’t all that long we ended up going to downtown area on that very day and saw a good portion of what we wanted to see — Duomo. We also did our climb to the top and took a good set of pictures. Our second objective in Florence was Uffizi Gallery and it was closed on Monday — we had Tuesday for that. Third is the fact that Pisa Tower is a very famous place and being so close to it and not seeing it would not make sense. And fourth was simply the fact that we wanted to get some out-of-the-country car renting experience under our belt.

In our Fiat on our way to Pisa.Before the trip I looked for car rental places, but all of them were near the central train station close to downtown or the airport. Neither one seemed exactly convenient, but I made a reservation near the train station, thinking that we’ll be spending time in the center of the city anyhow. On Monday morning we couldn’t really decide whether we still should do it. Driving out of the center is one thing, but not knowing where to drive is a whole other matter. Instead we went down to the reception desk of our hotel and asked if there were any rental places around. Turned out that Eurocar Rental was 5 minute walk away.

Our Fiat Panda.That’s where we went. Slowly moving guy, by American standards at least, said that they did have cars and their rates were very comparable to the rates that we got online for downtown rental. We also decided to include a GPS unit and all possible insurances that they were offering in addition to the mandatory theft insurance — none of my credit cards were offering insurance to cars rented in Italy and neither did my own car policy. The total for the day came out to $127. There were no hidden fees that and no problems whatsoever.

Central Pisa.One funny moment or maybe a silly moment for us was that we decided to boast how cheap the gas is for us in the U.S. and how we can easily afford to drive big, V8 powered cars to which the guy gave us a sobering reply: “Our medicine is free. My kids will go to college for free.” And something else along these lines. In his words it’s nice to be middle class in Italy, but if you want to be rich you have much more chances of making it in U.S. I personally will take my chances. All other countries are fun, but there is no place like home and New York is it.

Our Panda.Now that was a long introduction. At this point we finally got into our Fiat Panda which sported a 1.2 litter engine at the most, but which was unexpectedly roomy. The car came with a manual transmission. Luckily for me I had a pretty lengthy manual transmission experiment running during my younger days, so I had no problems driving a stick. All the traffic was also no big deal after New York. And with the help from our GPS unit we were soon speeding away from Florence and on our way to Pisa via autostrada A11.

Pisa.Weather-wise the day was less than stellar, no put intended. It was the only day when it actually rained throughout all of our trip. But it worked out OK for us. It only rained while we were driving and when we arrived to our destination the rain stopped. Rain was one of the reasons why we took a big highway straight to Pisa instead of small back roads. Another reason was the fact that we sill weren’t too sure of our navigational abilities, so we took the surest route. We hoped that on our way back we’ll take some smaller road and hopefully will get to stop in some small towns. Alas, that’s not how it worked out.

Parking meter and street signs.It took us an hour to get to Pisa. We spotted the tower from quite a bit away and soon after easily found parking fairly close to the central district of the city. There was a ton of elaborate signs explaining the parking rules, but in the end it came out to operating a very similar in use parking machine that New York City is covered in. We dropped the coins in, it spat a printed ticket out that goes behind the windshield. The restricted traffic zone was also very clearly marked, so I don’t think there really was a danger of us crossing into it accidentally.

Restricted traffic zone.We left our car and went on a hiking tour around Pisa. The town itself was somewhat of a cross between Florence and Rome architecture-wise, although the number of tourist was noticeably smaller than that of the other two cities. And beside the tower and central cathedral there really wasn’t much to do as far as our itinerary went. Even though the city itself has numerous other historic churches we decided to limit our whole Italian trip to the most famous locations in order to avoid a complete mess of memories at the end of our vacation.

Central Cathedral and Tower of Pisa.The famous tower itself is indeed a sight to behold. I knew the tower was leaning, I didn’t realize how much. It really stands at freakishly steep angle. In fact the angle was so freakish that we decided to forgo the climbing to the top tour — our only such omission during the whole trip. We took a good number of pictures, although I ran into another problem here. While all the normal towers on my pictures were falling down because of wide-angle distortion, this one was actually coming out straight. Quite ironic. As a result I don’t really have any pictures that I’m proud of from this particular place.

Mediterranean Sea coast.We walked about around the central area, took some more pictures of the main cathedral and headed back to our car. Our next objective was try to head up north along the coast of Mediterranean Sea as far as the day (sun) would allow. We actually wanted to get all the way to Manarola for its picturesque views and it was only 60 miles away, but there just wasn’t enough time. The sun was getting close to horizon by the time we were only half way there. So we stopped in one of the coastal resort towns — Marina di Pietrasanta — and took a nice walk along some pier and watched the sun set over the water. The town itself was virtually deserted, but it probably is bustling with activity during the summer months.

View from the pier.At this point we got back into our car and headed back to Firenze. Since it was dark out already we ended up not stopping or taking detours towards any of the small towns, even though we took a different road back. When we were getting closer to Florence I went into some panic mode — I know, so unusual — thinking that we won’t find the rental place, our hotel or any gas stations to fill the car up at. I really wanted to return the car this day and not have to wait until morning and worry about this chore the next day.

Resort town of Marina di Pietrasanta.“Strangely enough” there was no problem finding anything, although gas bill came out quite high even on 1.2 litter engine. We turned the car in and were back at our hotel room at around 7pm. Now I could truly relax and reflect on the experience of this fun and unique day. We decided not to take a bus to the center of the city and went to local restaurant for dinner on a recommendation of our hotel staff. We walked through the modern yet quite neighborhood of residential Florence, ate our dinner and drank our wine at Mi Amor restaurant, and were asleep soon after getting back to our cozy room of our Hilton Garden Inn.

  1. We did the math and buying a pass like we did in Japan didn’t make financial sense. In Japan the reservations were included in the price of the pass. In Italy reservations are mandatory and are not included in the price. []

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