Tag Archives: Hannibal

Glorious Tuscany

“We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered”  

Kahlil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’ 

My previous photo essay entitled ‘Corsica the Beautiful Island’ came to an end at Bastia where I was to board a ferry boat across the Ligurian Sea to Livorno, hence to nearby Pisa in Italy.  At that time I didn’t have much more in mind than to take a look for myself and discover what the big deal was about a now famous structure that had not exactly behaved as planned by its builders.  I was much like the disbelieving doubting Thomas who needed to see for himself if there indeed had been a divine resurrection.   I’d seen the photos but so what? It leaned.  So off I went to see the ‘big deal’.

And let me tell you the entry into Italy was anything but auspicious.  When I drove into the car ferry, last in line, I was pointed to a narrow, elevated platform.  Mine was the only car hoisted up about three metres; I had to squeeze my way out and go down a steel ladder.  That wasn’t a big deal and I enjoyed the trip across, had a glimpse of Elba (site of Napoleon’s first exile) until passengers were advised to get back to their cars and that’s when the fun began and I’m being totally facetious.  I clambered up, sat in the car and got fed all the fumes of a hundred or more cars and buses clattering their way out.  Obviously I couldn’t be lowered until the all clear below except, that is, the damn thing refused to go down.   I was stuck up there somewhat like a turkey atop a tree who had thought it could fly.  I mean the thing wasn’t going down and the men below were pointing to some kind of kink in the mechanism and nothing doing.  I got down and watched; lots of cursing in Italian didn’t help either fixing it or my mood.  By then a good twenty minutes had elapsed, I had one hell of a headache from the fumes and wondering what was going to happen.  Finally one burly fellow showed up with a sledge hammer and he attacked the thing with more cussing, him and the others, lost of ‘puttanas’ and finally whatever had been stuck came unstuck.  The entire contraption came down with a crash.  Lucky the car was on rubber tires and it merely had a good three bounces then settled down.

Now, I’m ready to go but things aren’t going better as the customs (this before the European Union came along) agents had left with the last car being passed through.  Only a lone ‘carabinieri’ was still hanging around but he’s not about to let me drive off since I’m not officially through customs.  I’m waving my passport at his nose and I’m now really about to lose it altogether.  He’s not cooperating and what little spoken Italian I know has totally deserted me.   This low comedy reaches the point where I get into my car and turn around heading for the ferry.  If that’s how it is I decided I’m returning to Corsica and ‘merda‘ to Michelangelo and Leonardo too.   As it happens the captain of the ferry is going out and he sees the goings on because now the ferry staff doesn’t want to let me back in; they’re not leaving until the following day but I don’t care.  I’m leaning on my horn and just behaving like a lunatic.  He marches over to discover what the commotion is all about and being an intelligent chap he’s sympathetic to my plight, especially since the delay was caused by his ship’s  faulty equipment.  The long and the short of it, he goes up to the carabinieri and patiently with lots of hand and shoulder gestures explains it all to him.  Of course the sight of a big cheese attired in a sparkling white and gold uniform does the trick.  Si, si, the senor can go through now that you vouch for him.  With a princely  wave of the hand the captain points the  way out.  I drive off tooting my horn for all I’m worth.  And so began my journey in Italy.   The docks at Liverno; notice the submarine – for a brief moment I had wanted to sink everything in sight.

(Note: To enhance the photos click on the pic once to enlarge and twice for more details.  I apologize for the mediocre quality as they were lifted from slides.)


Out from the dock area I came to a main highway and a sign indicated Pisa, only a few kilometres up the road.  After the recent brouhaha I’m thinking this thing better be a big deal and thankfully it turned out to be a big deal.  First of all, the tower itself was so much taller than I had imagined, somehow the photos never gave it a proper dimension, perhaps a lack of perspective, something against which to measure with the eyes.  Secondly, the tower is but one part of a splendid trio of exquisitely worked marble facades, that comprises the cathedral and baptistry.  I won’t bore you with a lot of data except for the bare bones to fill in a bit of the history.   Oh, yes, now I was totally at peace with the world and with Italians too.

Located in fabulous Tuscany in central Italy, on the right bank of the mouth of the River Arno flowing into the Tyrrhenian Sea, Pisa is known worldwide for the leaning bell tower of the city’s cathedral. However, the city of over 200,000  (metropolitan area) contains more than 20 other historic churches, several palaces and various bridges across the River Arno. Much of the city’s architecture was financed from its success as one of the Italian maritime republics.  The city is also home of the University of Pisa, which boast a history going back to the 12th century.   


The Leaning Tower is one of the world’s most famous structures because of its legendary tilt. Constructed as the bell tower to accompany the cathedral, the tower began to shift on its foundations in 1178, before the architect, Bonanno Pisano, had completed the first three tiers. Fortunately, the lean has now been halted, due to extensive work to halt the tilt before the iconic tower crashing to the ground. In fact some of the work has succeeded in realigning the tower that now leans on an angle of 4.1 meters (13 feet), rather than the previous 5 meters (16 feet).   No one wants to make it straight as it would destroy it’s intrinsic value as a splendid architectural oddity, and most certainly not the local people who have stated they’d rather see it crash.  I won’t burden you with too many more details as they are easily available on any computer’s search engines. 

P1130998I’ve not yet been to an Italian ‘piazza’ that doesn’t  feature the obligatory kindly old fellow selling bird feed.  Hence pigeons galore!  Nice photos until they drop one on you and even if its good luck, as he’ll assure you, it’s still better to rely on some other form of good fortune hailing from the heavens.


Almost overwhelmed by a flapping, flurry of flying feathers; yet this lovely seemingly enjoyed every second of the avian mayhem. 



It’s not hard to imagine this very angle has been thought cleverly taken by a dozen million amateur photographers throughout the years.  So did I as after all there’s no doubt the helpful angel is ever so delicately holding up man’s poor planning and doing it discreetly while looking away.


I’ll admit the view here is taken from the outer ledge of the tower.  I’ll further admit this was a forbidden area but a small wooden door giving access piqued my curiosity and with just a small push it creaked open.  Looking around that no one else was nearby I stepped out onto the marbled circumference.  At first I was delighted with my cleverness as the view was quite splendid.  Then as I was making my way around it became obvious there was a definitely steep sloping furthermore there had been a rain shower and the marble was slick as ice.  Now, I was feeling less intrepid and made my way back to the little door by hugging the wall while gingerly edging back.  Sometimes I wonder what pushes me to take chances to take a good photo?  I’ve done it so  many times (and got away with it) one might think I’d finally get the idea that my guardian angel might one day get bored and look away.   To make matters worse I read while still in Italy a student with less luck had plunged to his death.  He’d pushed open a little door the story said.  Mon Dieu, hopefully a solid lock has since been installed to prevent more such disasters.  By the way, the tower has two stairways, one going up and of course one going down.  The oddity is one of them has 2 steps more than the other one – can you figure out why? If you use the comment box I’ll let you in on the secret.  There are approximately 294 steps on the north side and 296 steps on the south side of the tower.


The view from above – incidentally I can see my shadow, it’s tiny but it does serve the purpose to show how much higher the tower is contrary to my original perception.    


There are eight floors, standing almost 56 metres (187 ft) with the top one housing the seven bells, one for each note on the major music scale.  The cathedral’s facade offers a good example of exquisitely worked marble.  The Leaning Tower of Pisa became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, also included in this designation were the cathedral, cemetery and the baptistery.


A farewell gift from Pisa – the immense billowing cloud provided a perfect background to the tower.  You may wish to read one of my posts entitled ‘Clouds – God’s Breath‘ also ‘Little Lost Cloud‘ elsewhere in this blog and you’ll understand my particular penchant for these often fanciful creations by an artistic Mother Nature.


From Pisa to Florence was an easy, pleasant drive; within the city it was an altogether different matter.  The traffic was dense, intense and oftentimes senseless.  One way streets ran head-on to another one way street, except  this time in the opposite direction leaving no choice but to turn left or right but for sure away from your destination.   I had wisely, I thought, grabbed the first legal parking spot and from there walked towards the ‘duomo’ lovingly named  ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore’ (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower); the construction lasted from 1296 to 1436 and the wait well worth the resulting masterpiece.  Long experience in European cities has taught me that many hotels of differing quality and price are clustered around the old city centre surrounding an ancient cathedral.  Indeed, I found a great room with a close-up view to the world’s largest brick dome, an engineered masterpiece by Fillipo Brunelleschi.   And the price was right!  Now to get back to the car and return – whoa, not so easy.  I knew where I was going (just aim for the dome) but couldn’t get there as no matter which way I went I ran into an impenetrable maze of ancient, narrow one way streets.  At a parking lot I found a cab driver eating a sandwich and chatting with the attendant – I explained my torment.  No ‘problemo’, the good men said, here, we’ll show you.  And with the help of a map spread out on the hood of the cab they showed me, except, except they couldn’t after all and both scratched their heads.  How about that? They thought it funny except me and then I took matters into my own hands.  In an anarchistic mood, I  drove across a pedestrian path, one entire block up a wrong way street honking all the way and found myself in some five minutes right in front of my hotel.  According to the hotel manager, a part-time opera singer (a fine tenor as I discovered) I could park the car half-way up on the sidewalk, across the narrow back lane; it was a mere three minutes walk to the cathedral and there it stayed for four days.  I had accepted the idea I’d have to pay to retrieve it as it was sure to be towed away but until I left (copiously covered in pigeon droppings) it sat patiently waiting for me with nary a parking ticket!  You have to love that kind of urban anarchy.


In contrast, here in Vancouver, this past Good Friday, parked totally out of the way of traffic, in a lane running adjacent to the cathedral, a car was ticketed while the services were going on at three in the afternoon.  I call that a dastardly, unholy and totally uncivilized city where even on a ‘HOLYdday’ this city can’t help itself and acts without a shred of decency.   As well, across the street a tow-truck pirate was hauling away a car from where the money ran out in the metre.  The service ran very long and obviously the church goer(s) had not given it a thought, after all, not hurting anyone right? I saw this going on because I have NO  faith in this city to do the right thing, such as declaring a ticketing moratorium on special holidays and I hustled out of the service to add more coins to my meter.  Philistines abound in this city’s abject administration and I have no qualms about telling the world.   And that my friends is the peripheral but pleasurable pay-off for toiling on a personal blog.

The cathedral complex, located in  Piazza del Duomo includes the Baptistery  and Giotto’s Campanile.  The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the historic centre of Florence. 


In large cities in Europe there are numerous special feast days, manifestations and parades held for any number of reasons.  Here was yet another one I witnessed in front of the ‘duomo’.  Bands playing, loud praying by the supplicants all part of traditions and the warmth of being there as I too joined up for a while.  


When Michelangelo had a first look at the East doors of Florence’s Baptistry of St. John, he exclaimed they were fit to grace the entrance to paradise and thus became ever since known as The Gates of Paradise.  After accumulating centuries of grime, the doors suffered major damage in the devastating Arno River flood of 1966. In fact some of the panels were lost for years in the river bed before being rescued.  The gilded bronze doors were removed, worked on for 27 years and returned to their original splendour.  One of the ten panels before it was restored.  


The Arno flows under the arches of the oldest bridge still in daily use in Florence and appropriately named ‘Ponte Veccio‘ (Old Bridge).  The bridge is a pedestrian venue that also doubles as a thriving centre for jewelry and gold traders.  


Shoppers abound looking for that special souvenir from Florence.  I was told the quality and prices were good if the buyer exhibited some knowledge and was skilled at bargaining.   


Sienna,  a splendid  Tuscany hill town beckoned just a short drive on my eventual way to Assisi.  It would take far too much blog space to adequately portray what you might discover should you be fortunate enough to visit; below are some of the absolute highlights.


If you ever wandered where the nomenclature for the colour ‘sienna’ came from there you have the visual illustration.  The local clay used to make the terra cotta roof tiles includes a  natural pigment that when baked results it that very distinct hue.  Sienna’s rooftops are all made with these tiles, hence the name – obviously, right? 



The famed concave ‘piazza‘ in Sienna offers an unusual view.  


I’m sitting here soaking in the sunny atmosphere, having a bite to eat and reminding myself not to ever forget this felicitous moment.  I might add at this juncture I’ve fortunately had the good instinct to do so whenever finding myself in a particularly meaningful time or place.  Luckily, I can look back and once again enjoy personal moments of pure joy and if I may for those of you who are a little younger, don’t neglect to savour the moment and bank it in your memory, you’ll live to one day say with great satisfaction, “Been there; done that!” 


And, of course, as soon as food is shown, the inevitable invasion of pigeons, but I didn’t mind to share a few crumbs;  made for a good photo, right?


In a land where magnificent cathedrals abound  this one is unusual in its design and materials.   You can judge for yourself.


The central nave shows off the magnificent black/green and white marble used in the construction and one major reason for the cathedral’s fame.  


Across from the splendid entrance portals, two sightseeing nuns are enjoying the view along with lunch.   I wonder how many other bottoms found a rest in the very same spot over the centuries?

Heading eastward towards Assisi, I spotted these women at work hoeing a field of cabbage (I think).  Slowing down I heard the group lustily singing what undoubtedly was a working peasant song; they rendered the song as well as any trained chorus.  It was truly a lovely moment and when I got out of the car aiming my camera at them – what fun ensued!  These were not shy country maidens, au contraire!  Unabashed,  they  pointed to ample bosoms if I’d dare come close and one or two lifted skirts dangerously above knees.  Good earthy humour, all in jest, of course.  Always seeking the country roads in Europe, whenever I can to avoid  the super highways where the high speeds requires all of one’s attention on the road ahead and no opportunity to enjoy such authentic sights are likely to occur. 



Much to my surprise I came upon a lake so wide I could barely see the high hills across; I had not imagined such a large inland body of water in Italy.  I spotted a bronze tablet and meandered over – more surprise.  I got a reminder of a long ago learned history lesson.  Here a little more than two millennia ago (217 BC) on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the great Carthaginian, Hannibal, (with his elephants) had ambushed and then crushed the Roman legions sent up from Rome to stop the invasion.  Furthermore, in a nearby restaurant, along with a fine vista from the patio and a copious lunch of crispy fried lake perch and a fine bottle of white (also local) I could envision the mayhem.  My imagination does improve with a glass or two of ‘vino’.  


To be candid the wine was a little too good and a tad too much for one, therefore  as a precaution (I am cautious on the road) I decided to spend the night in a nearby ‘pension’.  Another great idea on my part.  After a siesta, I then wandered around the lakeshore and without having planned it, found myself in the very same restaurant enjoying the very same menu.  I do believe in exploiting a good thing when I get the opportunity.  My room’s window allowed a view  on the lake and a welcome cooling window. The hostess was friendly (could have been the younger sister of Gina Lollobrigida) the breakfast ample, tasty along with a pot of strong coffee (much needed)  I was sorely tempted to hang around another day or even two but I forced myself onward, in retrospect probably a good thing.  


At long last on my way to Assisi this rose adorned stone wall caught my eye; gorgeous, fragrant roses of all types and colours are abundant no matter where in Italy.  This lovely photo is an invitation to check out my next post as I move on to one of my favourite destinations in Italy, the picturesque town of Assissi where St. Francis made his unequalled contribution to peace, the love of mankind and all living creatures.