“Stand on the marble bridge, cast your eye, if you are not dazzled, on its river glowing as with fire, then follow the graceful curve of the palaces on the lung’Arno till the arch is naved by the massy dungen-tower (erroneously called Ugolino’s,) forming in dark relief, and tell me if anything can surpass a sunset in Pisa.”
The ‘lugarnos’ along the River Arno are the winding streets of the old city, home to medieval palaces, a fabled tower where wretched Ugolino may or may not have devoured his own children, merchants’ houses and wealthy family villas that cluster along the river’s bank, connected by stone and marble bridges.
For centuries, the waterside residences were the heart of the city and highly prized. Byron stayed for a while in a palatial riverside mansion, still handsome and still standing.
He indulged in the decadence of Pisan high living and argued with Shelley about the quality of the sunsets compared with those of Venice.
Further along, the tiny church of Santa Maria della Spina has catered for the salvation of sailor’s souls since 1230. A little incongruously on the pavement now, until 1871 it was directly on the riverbank, but was raised up for its protection from flooding at high tides.
‘Spina’ or thorn refers to a holy relic from Christ’s crown of thorns brought to Pisa in 1333, which was later moved to the larger Chiesa di Santa Chiara. As the doors were locked, and remained resolutely so, we admired its small exterior decorated in gothic Pisan style.
Behind the lugarnos, the old city centre of the Borgo Stretto is today a series of narrow arcades and winding streets of grocers, bakers, patisseries, coffee shops, shoe shops and second hand book stalls, all busy with a constantly moving crowd of university students. It’s a place to sample local life before venturing to join the international throng in the Piazza dei Miracoli.
The gorgeous collection of toppling and sinking buildings is a magical sight at any time of the day. We saw it under bright blue skies and in afternoon heat, then later in the quiet blue cool of nearly midnight.
The shining white stone architecture of the Leaning Tower, Duomo and Baptistry is set off by spotless green and lush lawns.
People variously posed to prop up the tower and we were lucky with a kerbside table at the Duomo café to enjoy the scenes. Inside the Baptistry, the perfect but eerie acoustics were demonstrated by a local baritone.
Returning in the evening, we had tiny golden glow worms for company as they massed amongst the banks of scented Jasmine flowers lining the walkways around the piazza.
Touring Tuscany’s interior we criss-crossed the verdant hills and valleys dotted with medieval walled towns and villages, peeking into centuries old churches, peering up at austere fortresses and classic Tuscan farmsteads, admiring renaissance architecture and sampling local vintages.
It was everything the guide books had been gushing about. Hilltop towered towns, beautifully tended vineyards, gently rolling hills emerging in soft morning mists and shuttered, secretive farmhouses approached through stately cypress alleys.
We had some big days of cycling farmland and forests, in lovely places such as Chianti and Montepulciano. Vibrant green hills resonated with the sound of humming summer bees and locals hung out their washing on lines strung up in sunshine on the south facing balconies of their pretty village houses.
A quick check on local house prices revealed a two bedroomed studio flat cost €380,000. No downturn here in 2011 then!
We sampled sixteen Chianti wines at an innovative wine cellar which sold us ‘credit cards’ worth €10, which dispensed a dribble of Chianti by the press of the button.
Spinning the various carousels of dispensers offering the vintages, some delicious, some disgusting, it was great fun for an hour and a welcome break from pedalling the steep hillsides. We quickly learnt that the cheaper the wine, the more you got!
In late afternoon sunshine we climbed steep and winding lanes to sit in the dusty central square of the medieval hilltop town, Montepulciano.
Perched on top of a limestone ridge 600 meters above sea level, the old brick and stone-walled town lords it over the verdant Tuscan landscape. It was an anniversary, so we celebrated with a glass of the famous red wine sitting on a balcony with a view looking across the terracotta tiled rooves of the town houses to the green hills of the farmsteads below.
The Unesco World Heritage site of Siena, is the capital of the province of the same name. After the pretty breeziness of Pisa and the open valleys of Chianti, we were surprised by the claustrophobic feeling of its medieval brick-built centre.
Immensely tall palaces, churches and towered patrician houses crowd in on themselves along dark and narrow streets. It’s seventeen historic departments, or ‘contrade’, spiral off from the grand central square, giving the old town the feeling of a labyrinth.
The atmosphere along chilly, shaded passageways reeked of centuries of men lurking in doorways, wearing cloaks and carrying daggers.
It was a relief to step through a low brick archway down several steps and onto the disconcertingly sloping Piazza del Campo in Siena, the largest open space in the old city and home to a heady and reckless horse race that takes place there twice a year.
From the top of the slender 14th century Torre del Mangia, one of the sights of the square, it is possible to see the furthermost corners of the ancient, warring province. It was also a great place to sample delicious and cooling Italian fruit gelatos and tiny exquisite espressos.
This was a first taste of la dolce vita in this beautiful rural province to which we would later return many times over the years to enjoy.