In order to catch our 5:40am train to Florence, we had to first take a 3:47am water taxi from Murano to Venice, and then change to another water taxi to the station. The unfortunate result of this is that as soon as we boarded our sleek, high-speed train to Firenze (Florence), we were dead asleep, and stayed that way until we arrived in Florence two hours later.
In Florence (like in Inverness), we had nowhere to stay when we arrived, and no real idea of where to go to find accommodations. We also learned the hard and time-consuming way that although there is free Wi-Fi to be had in Florence, you can only access it if you have an Italian SIM card in your mobile phone. After a few minutes in an internet café where we realized no last minute couch-surfing hosts would come to our rescue, we befriended the café owner. Unable to convince him to join CouchSurfing on the spot and become our host, he did point us in the direction of some places to stay. We were on our way to our first hostel since Scotland.
With almost a week in Tuscany, we took the first day off and relaxed in our hostel all afternoon while using their Wi-Fi to catch up on a million things. We also met some other backpackers – Alex from England, and Julia from Germany, and the four of us set off to find some amazing pizza that evening. The good news is that we found a pizzeria with great food and good prices. The bad news is that the “actors” from “Jersey Shore” found it before us, and the place was almost a shrine to them. After we ate, we goggled in amazement at the Duomo all lit up for the night. The Duomo is Florence’s cathedral and it is the fourth largest church in Europe.From the outside it is an amazing site – a huge Renaissance building with a giant dome, and an equally impressive campanile (bell tower).
The next day, Julia joined us on a walking tour of Florence during which we took in all the important sites. We climbed the Duomo’s campanile, saw Michaelangelo’s David, admired several other famous sculptures, and walked across the Ponte Vecchio – a Renaissance-era bridge traditionally home to jewelers, and the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the retreating Nazis in 1944.
The next day took us to Pisa where rumor had it there was an interesting tower with some sort of architectural flaw. Taking the train by day allowed us to really see some of Toscano (Tuscany), and it is just as beautiful as you’ve been led to believe. Rolling hillsides dotted with houses painted in muted shades of yellow, red and brown, and covered with vineyards, olive and cypress trees.
I verified the tower does in fact lean, and after first refusing to take the traditional cheesy-tourist photo, I eventually gave in and took several goofy poses. I also enjoyed taking a photo or two of the rest of the tourists there in *their* goofy poses. When one stops to look around at everyone, it is a pretty silly-looking scene indeed. There isn’t much else for tourists in Pisa, so we had lunch in the shadow of the tower before returning to Florence where we were off to our new host in the small town of Montespertoli – about 20 minutes from Florence by train.
On day four we went to Siena for a day of touring. Siena is more of a walled, medieval city with Gothic architecture, whereas Florence is a triumph of the Renaissance. The main square, Il Campo, looks like a giant red stone sink with a fountain at one end, and (you guessed it) a church at the other. There is a huge festival here where bareback horse riders race around the square, but we were one week too early to see it.
Siena also has its own duomo. This gothic cathedral is (IMO) the single most jaw-droppingly awesome church I have ever seen. (And that’s saying something!) The floors are intricate mosaic murals, the columns and buttresses are alternating stripes of white and black marble, and the artwork has some amazing examples of historical religious painting. The ceilings of the multiple domes are blue with bronze stars, and the chapel of St. Mary is something to behold. The Duomo also houses the Piccolomini library containing intricately illustrated manuscripts on display, and an overwhelmingly gorgeous painted ceiling.
After I picked my jaw back up off the floor, there was one last stop to make – The Church of San Domenico where St. Catherine of Siena took her vows. This church is not particularly interesting inside, but it does contain an actual relic of St. Catherine – her head. That’s right, her actual head on display surrounded by silver and venerated regularly by believers. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to sacred body parts being displayed.
We spent our last two days in Tuscany enjoying the small town of Montespertoli, and generally relaxing. We soaked in some natural, free hot springs, visited a local street market, and sat on a bench admiring the panoramic views of olive trees and rolling hills. It is always really nice to see a bit of the countryside outside the main tourist cities.