After weeks of planning and anticipation, we hit the road to Tuscany on our first overnight road trip since moving to France. We were on the road shortly after 4pm, with our destination set for Pisa- only 390km away. Our goal was to arrive in Pisa before sunset so that we could see the city in the light of the day and enjoy dinner at a decent time. It’s still quite fascinating to me, amazing really, that we are only 390km, or 4 hours by car, from such an amazing and historically significant city.
The drive from Nice to Pisa is an experience in itself. From Nice to Genoa it is a spectacular drive just inland from Mediterranean coastline. The A8/A10 itself is a feat of engineering, piecing together a super-highway through rugged coastal mountains with bridges and tunnels. Along the way, we turned the abundance of tunnels into a game for the kids and they actually counted 178 tunnels between Nice and Pisa. Next time we do this trip, it might be fun to leave the kids and mini-van at home, dose my wife with some Dramamine and rent a Porsche Cayenne or a sporty little BMW X6M and let ‘er rip. What a road!
But back to reality, after about 150 tunnels, we took a wrong turn in Genoa, which ultimately delayed our arrival in Pisa by about an hour, but took us through the heart of Genoa right along the port.
Like much of France, the Genoan streets were filled with scooters and motorcycles that like to create their own lanes of traffic between the cars. This creates a jumbled mess that ends up slowing down the pace of the cars sitting patiently in their legal lanes. Since the traffic was moving slow, it allowed us to take in the sights and sounds of Genoa from the car. While sitting on the road by the port, we were very surprised to see a huge pirate ship docked in the water that resembled One Eyed Willie’s ship from the movie the Goonies. It turns out that the ship is called the Il Galeone Neptune, and it was built for another film in 1986 called Pirates, directed by Roman Polanski. Of course we didn’t know this until we got home and looked it up on the Internet, but we were happy to think that it was a genuine pirate ship from times past. After our unplanned tour of Genoa, we finally found the A-12 Autostrada, hit a rest top, and were back on the road to Pisa.
As we passed from the Italian state of Liguria into Tuscany, the road flattened out and the sun began to shine brightly through layers of clouds, upon an incredible mountain range. I don’t know why, but I never imagined the area around Pisa as being mountainous, especially large, jagged mountains with snow on them. It turns out the mountains we saw outside of the city of Carrara weren’t all naturally jagged and they didn’t have snow on them either, rather they had been carved by man extracting white marble. Carrara marble has been used since the time of Ancient Rome; the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column in Rome are constructed of it and many sculptures of the Renaissance were carved from Carrara marble.
We arrived in Pisa just as the sun was setting, but not before spotting the famous leaning tower peaking out of the distant city scape. We quickly checked into the Marriott AC Hotel in the newer, business section of Pisa and then made our way by car to the main attractions in the heart of the city. The AC Marriott is a somewhat stylish, modern hotel that is worth the 100 euro per night rate, but definitely not within walking distance to the historic part of Pisa.
Allow me to interject some personal history here. I think it was an episode of Sesame Street, thirty-something years ago, that I first remember learning about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Driving into Pisa, the anticipation of seeing the monument was thick in the car–my kids were excited, my wife couldn’t stop talking about a previous visit here in her late teens and I couldn’t wait to take some creative photos for Facebook.
We parked about 10 minutes away, down a side street, from the Piazza del Duomo, which houses the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry, the Camposanto Monumental, and of course the Leaning Tower. Walking down the ancient cobbled streets of Pisa in the dark, inching ever closer to the historic tower for the first time, had a certain enchantment to it, as every corner revealed another hint of the world’s most famous leaning monument. As we entered the Piazza, the wait was over and there she was, tall and slender, curvaceous, drenched in moonlight and just a little off-kilter. I love that even though it’s possible from a modern-day engineering standpoint, the Italian’s have never ‘fixed’ her. She’s perfect leaning just the way she is. We marveled that we were the only people in this Piazza, us and a couple of security guards.
After snapping a series of photos, growling stomachs and whining kids dictated we make our way down the nearest street, Via Santa Maria, where we dined al fresco at Ristorante L’Europeo. We recommend the eggplant parmesean, Neopolitan style pizza and a healthy glass of Chianti Classico.
Lights reflect on the water of the Arno River in Pisa.
The Cittadella as viewed from the Arno River.
After filling our minds with the historic imagery of Pisa and our belly’s with fine Italian food and wine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest. Tomorrow we head to Villa Collina located the heart of Tuscany and new adventures await.