|Not me. But what I was afraid of.|
Friday we signed on for a bus tour of Tuscany with Walkabout Tours, a small tour company that has carved a niche with very entertaining people and out-of-the-box ideas. One of their other tours assigns people to tiny pre-1970s Fiat 500s. The guide drives in front and the tourists zip through Florence in line behind them, ala The Italian Job (with cuter cars).
We have been avoiding bus tours here and elsewhere for years. We had a vision of a mobile geriatric ward of ornery old folk. OK, so I'm an ornery old fart now -- but I didn't want to live the stereotype.
As it turned out, the tour drew people of all ages, from kids to a few older than us. Lots of 50-something couples. And an incredible on-bus guide, Elisa. (If we didn't like her, she said to write about her as "Christine."). Elisa was Florentine, but spent years in London with her Spanish husband (I got lost there, too). She managed to weave textbook history into a multi-cultural patter that kept smiles on every face. During the last few miles of the trip, she walked up the aisle to talk to each passenger about the trip.
The tour went from Florence to Siena, then to a winery and farm near San Gimignano for lunch, a pop over to San Gimignano and then on to Pisa.
Siena is often considered the most beautiful town in Italy. Especially by the Sienese -- and never by the Florentines. Florence was the capital of the wool trade and then went into high finance. Sienna skipped the sheep and went straight to banking. Allegedly, they took their money-changing skills to London, where they asked passing Brits to come over to their banco -- workbench or counter.
|Olivia explains Sienna|
That's one of the many stories told with eye-rolling gusto by Olivia, our Siena guide. I could be happy skipping the antiquities and just watching Olivia for the day. Her hands pumped more air than an aerobics instructor's.
|Sienna's cathedral and inside its dome.|
Onward! Better yet, onward to lunch.
We wound through the Tuscan hillsides to an organic farm/winery within sight of the San Gimignano towers. The old town once had more than 70 tall towers -- a sign of wealth in medieval days. Even with the 14 left, its skyline lives up the its nickname of "The Wall Street of Tuscany." We had a hillside view of that skyline as we ate fine pasta and cured meats and drank wine. Lots of wine. A San Gimignano-local white, a chianti, and Tuscan red and finally sweet Vin Santo into which we dipped our cantuccini cookies.
|San Gimignano. Cecile has become a wiz at panoramic photos with her iPhone. I just have to stand still and wait.|
Finally, a longer trip to Pisa, with scenery unremarkable enough the we could take naps without guilt.
|A little to the right. No left...|
|I did it. And yes, I'm proud...|
I, of course, couldn't resist. So here is my Pisa with extra cheese.
There are two major surprises about Pisa. First, almost every building leans. The cathedral square is on squishy ground, so it looks a bit like Bacchus drew the blueprints.
|Pisa cathedral for all artistic tastes|
Unlike in Siena, the cathedral in Pisa is a mishmash of millennial styles. The nave has a Byzantine back dome surrounded by Renaissance paintings overlooking a 21st century abstract altar piece. And there is a saint in a glass coffin over to one side. Maybe it is the leaning, but it also seemed that none of the lines in the church matched up.
So I've seen Pisa. 'Nuff said.
We had a pleasant ride back to Florence, where we walked from the bus station to Piazza della Signoria for a light supper at an outdoor cafe near the Medici's sculpture garden. A street musician played classical guitar while the Palazzo Vecchio loomed over us and the nearly full moon rose.