When I unexpectedly found that I had an unused day of annual leave a few months ago, the opportunity to slip in an extra trip abroad this year seemed like too good a chance to pass up. It would be November before I had chance to squeeze in a day off and we weren't sure where would be good to travel to at that time of year when it's no longer summer but not yet close enough to Christmas to be festive. A search of the Ryanair website soon revealed that there were cheap flights available from Stansted to Pisa on the first Saturday of November, as well as reasonable flights back from Bologna the following Monday. Tim had the idea for a route from Pisa to Bologna via Florence. It sounded like fun, and we invited my sister Helen to come along for her first full trip to Italy as well
Our flight from Stansted to Pisa was at 08.30 this morning, which sounds quite civilised until you count backwards and realise that it necessitated getting out of bed at 03.30. I had thought that Stansted might be a bit calmer on Saturday morning in November (compared to Saturday mornings in July/August) but that didn't seem to be noticeably the case. We weren't checking in any luggage so that saved us some time, though security objected to the Kindle in my hand baggage which resulted in 15 minutes standing waiting for my bag to be searched and rescanned, stuck in a queue behind a tiresome woman who seemed to think she could bring as many toiletries as she liked so long as they were in plastic bags.
It was a wet and miserable day in England and the grey clouds continued for the first part of our flight over Europe. We were extremely lucky that breaks in the cloud started appearing when we reached a point just north of the Alps, and so we had a spectacular view of the mountains as we passed over into Italy. Perhaps our geography needs a bit of work, but we were quite disconcerted as the flight began its descent to Pisa as we appeared to be over the sea and could only make out some distant land on the horizon. I was confused, because I knew Pisa wasn't a coastal town. It turns out that it much nearer the coast that I thought though, and fortunately land gradually came into view during the final minutes of the flight!
Pisa airport has the distinction of being the most unusual airport I have ever been to, in that it's possible to walk from the airport straight into the town itself. This seems particularly remarkable for an airport which is serviced by Ryanair! I was all set to catch the airport bus, but Tim had visited Pisa once before last year, and so he led us out of the terminal and down a road which led straight into the centre of town. It can't have taken us more than 20 minutes to get from the arrivals hall to Piazza Vittoria Emanuele, named after the first king of the united Italy. There's a statue of him, looking important in a big hat.
The square itself is very attractive. In one corner there was a small church, which looked very old...
...and on the other side there were some pretty buildings with porticos.
From the square we walked down Corso d'Italia, which looked like it was Pisa's main street.
It was busy on a Saturday morning, but not unpleasantly so, and some of the shops seemed to be housed in very grand buildings.
We walked in the direction of a clock tower we could see in the distance.
The clock was attachced to a building by the side of the River Arno.
We crossed over the road and admired the view across the river.
There were some beautiful houses on the opposite bank.
We crossed over the bridge and were soon in Piazza Garibaldi, complete with large statue of Garibaldi.
There was also a large church with a beautiful white facade.
By this stage we were getting near to the part of town which is home to the famous leaning tower. It was around 1pm by this point so we decided to stop for lunch before heading on to the tower so that we didn't miss the opportunity for food altogether. Italian restaurants are very strict about stopping serving once the official lunch time is over at 2pm.
We found a nice place on one of the side streets and - unbelievably considering it is November - we were able to sit outside in the sunshine to eat our pasta
Suitably fortified we made our way in the direction of the tower and we were extremely excited when we caught our first glimpse of it at the end of the street. Finally we were there!
The tower looks surprisingly straight in the photo above, but when you approach it from different angles you can see that it really does lean a lot!
The tower was originally built as the bell tower of Pisa's cathedral. It started to lean partway through its construction, as the ground was too soft to carry the weight of the tower, and has continued leaning ever since.
It is possible to climb the tower but we decided to give it a miss. It costs €18 and you have to book in advance because only a limited number of people can be allowed inside at any given time. There is lots to see around the tower though without going inside. The cathedral itself is a spectacular building...
...and the baptistry which stands separately to the cathedral is also beautiful.
Pisa is obviously quite a touristy town though and you can see from this photo that even on a Saturday in November, there were a LOT of visitors, many of whom were taking it in turns to pose for photos with their hands in the air as if they were holding the tower up.
We decided to escape the hordes after a while and stopped for coffee at a little cafe so that we had chance to look at the guidebook and get our bearings. I had an espresso and Tim and Helen had cafe lattes. When it came to be time to pay, we had a look at the menu and calculated that if an espresso was €1.70 and the lattes were €2.80 then we owed a grand total of €7.30. It seemed a little expensive for what were quite small coffees, but never mind.
Tim went to pay and we were extremely confused when he came back with a bill for a mere €4, the lattes having cost €1.50 and the espresso a mere €1!
It seemed like the prices on the menu must have been tourist prices and we had avoided paying them, perhaps due to Tim speaking to the waitress in Italian
From the cafe we made our way to Piazza dei Cavalieri, which was home to some more impressive buildings.
There is definitely more to Pisa than just the tower
Our train to Florence wasn't due until 17.32, so we still had time for another walk along the banks of the river Arno. We could see that the countryside outside the city was quite mountainous, in one direction at least.
The journey to Florence took just under an hour and we travelled in a modern(!) Italian regional train which was very comfortable except for the fact that it was really overkill to have the airconditioning still on in November. Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived in Florence, but it didn't take long to find our way to the apartment. We were relieved to find that there was a lady waiting to check us in as promised and the apartment itself is lovely, with two spacious ensuite bedrooms...
...and a nice living/dining space as well.
After unpacking our stuff we set out to search for pizza, and found a nice restaurant not too far from the apartment. We finished the meal with another round of coffee, but when they brought us the bill we realised that they'd missed it off. Tim started explaining to the waiter but he just waved his hand and told us not to worry about it! So today we have had one lot of discounted coffee followed by some completely free coffee
We've had a really fun day in Pisa and we're amazed how much we've managed to cram in since we left home this morning! We're looking forward to exploring Florence in the daylight tomorrow