Wednesday 19th August
Intrepid as anything, I’m up early today. Bus to the station…slight delay figuring out the automatic ticket machine, then entrain to Pisa. Not only that, but by dint of some effort I manage to stay awake on the train…more or less…and am rewarded by a moderately scenic progress through rolling hills most of the way…with a soundtrack of Grateful Dead (courtesy of my new phone, which does almost everything except wash and iron clothes), although it does occur to me that it should really be Vivaldi…or perhaps some nice monkish chanting. I’ll stick with the Dead, I think. There’s a definite air of the baroque about many of their better excursions, plus I inevitably associate them with LA. The only other place I’ve been in the last decade that’s this hot.
Having assiduously read the guide book I’m not completely surprised when most of Pisa reveals itself as a pleasant, but hardly exciting, 1950s town. (It was more or less flattened during the 2nd World War, necessitating a lot of re-building). On the way to the famous bit – almost as far as you can get from the station and still be in Pisa – I pass first a house with a gable-end completely covered in pastel-shaded Keith Haring type squiggly people, then a loggia at the base of a Palazzo by the river (Arno, again) that’s being restored. At ground level it’s all covered with hoardings…which are covered in a rich selection of really excellent street art. Fab! To the bemusement of several passer-by (on whom it all seems largely wasted) I take lots of photographs.
Across the river, and almost at the Campo di Miraculo (‘Field of Miracles’, as the famous bit is apparently known), I digress slightly, having spotted the modest façade of a smallish Romanesque church down a side street, and am very glad I did. Inside it’s very plain, almost austere, and I like it very much. It retains in large measure the feeling of a shared sacred space and I’ll bet it’s still used, actually has meaning for the community it serves. There’s the sense of a communal shelter, a place of coming together in the face of the un-bearable. A moments reflection, and one realizes this must be one of the primary functions of any sacred place, but it’s not something I’ve ever really experienced on an emotional level before…certainly not in an empty building. Is there something special about this place, I wonder, or has the minor epiphany experienced yesterday sensitized me in some way? Who knows…but I’m glad, and grateful, nonetheless
Aptly named, the Campo di Miraculi turns out to be another of those intensely theatrical, stylish spaces at which the Italians excel. You emerge, blinking in the sudden light, from a dark, narrow street, onto what initially seems like a lake of vibrantly green grass (In this heat? Some poor sod’s doing an awful lot of watering!) enclosed by warmly pastel-shaded cliffs of elegant architecture. Floating in the middle, an immense, dazzling white marble island – the Duomo, with attendant satellite, the Baptistery…and, of course, the incredible, impossible, un-fathomable tower. Leaning away like anything, as it has been ever since they got about half-way up during the initial construction, attempting to compensate for which accounts for the slight but noticeable kink.
It’s hard to convey in words just how peculiar the tower is; even harder to photograph in a way that gives any sense of the deep strangeness of it. Even if didn’t lean it would be well worth seeing, because it’s lovely, but the angle makes it unique, compelling and utterly odd. A glorious (although unintended) monument to the counter-intuitiveness of the laws of physics. Hard not to hold your breath, in expectation of the worst. Which, after almost 20 years of careful (and, I should imagine, incredibly nerve-racking) remedial work, has apparently been almost indefinitely delayed.
It is possible to venture all the way to the top, but only with a guide and after a long wait. It’s far too hot for that, and I would lack the patience even it weren’t , so I wonder off to the ticket office, still shaking my head at the loopy wonderfulness of the thing. And that no-one had the heart to pull it down and start again.
They have a cunning pic’n’mix ticket pricing system – the more bits you want to visit, the cheaper each one gets. Not a bad idea, and despite the huge numbers of people sloshing about the place I only have to queue for about 10 minutes. Just about long enough to agonise over which bits I can afford to go and see. I settle on the duomo and duomo museum.
The tower draws the eye so powerfully that the Duomo hasn’t really registered as other than a massive marble bulk, yet. I’ve been skulking around behind it, profoundly grateful for the shade, but it’s now time to take a deep swig of water, brace myself and step out into the light … go around to the front…and become enchanted by what must be one of the very loveliest buildings in Italy. Everything seems in perfect proportion, the various masses and volumes of the component parts most harmoniously balanced, so that nothing seems out of the scale, and it does all work as a whole – rather than a collection of (perhaps individually magnificent) bits all lumped together, the impression gained in Florence.
The façade is particularly appealing – it really established the template for all subsequent Romanesque churches – so well conceived that it gives an impression of soaring lightness, a simple schema of arches upon arches enlivened by green marble banding amongst the white. Standing directly in front of it, gazing upwards, I’m struck by the carved beasts that jut dramatically out of the corners of the first tier – like pegs to hold it to the sky, stop the whole confection drifting off into the blue empyrean. Which would surely be a miracle, although somewhat understandable on a day like this. There’s a peculiar quality to the light – dazzlingly bright, relentless – which, although it renders everything else hard-edged, immutably earthen, seems to lend the softly shining marble an airy, almost diaphanous quality.
Or, perhaps, it just leads to an over-heating of the imagination.
Either way, I am enchanted, both by the building itself and the notion of a floating cathedral.
The spell holds inside, and I spend a deeply happy interlude simply ambling about and drinking it all in – soaring arcades, rich decoration including the marvellous carving on Pisano’s ornate pulpit. Deep shadows and gleaming light pouring in from high-set windows. It’s all hugely impressive, despite being crowded with a babbling throng of visitors. In contrast to the airy look of the exterior, there’s a still, cool feeling of solidity inside. We, the visitors, are the diaphanous, insubstantial ones…we might as well be ghosts.
The only false note is, sadly, struck by a couple of pieces of modern sculpture – a small pulpit and larger altar. It’s not that they’re bad, as such. Certainly well-executed. It’s just that they seem…well, thin, somehow. Lacking something, in comparison to the glories around them. Passion? Conviction? Confidence? It’s hard to say what it is, but the lack is painfully evident. Something, perhaps, to do with religion’s gradual slide from being at the very heart of everything conceivable. Whatever it is, this lack obviously makes the artist’s job very much harder. (Which make Sutherland and Epstein’s achievement in Coventry all the more impressive, it occurs to me in passing)
The museum is very worthwhile (and blessedly cool). It’s stuffed full of bits from the duomo that have fallen off, been removed for one reason or another, or stored away and forgotten about for ages (in the astonishing case of a huge and elaborate tomb, plus associated sculptures). I’m not hugely excited by the vestments (fabulous though I’m sure they are), but there’s some wonderful illuminated manuscripts that keep me happy for ages, poring over the minute detail of the illuminations, and amusing myself imagining a renaissance predecessor to the player piano…an ingenious contrivance for playing the musical scores, which have something of the piano-roll about them.
It’s a peaceful place – or it would be, were it not for the demented whining of a huge strimmery-type thing being wielded by a seriously macho gardener in the courtyard. Eventually he stops, and a blessed quiet descends…lovely.
So impressed am I with my own intrepidity (or should it be intrepid-ness?) that instead of doing the sensible thing; finding a quiet corner and having a little nap, or dozing on the train all the way back to Florence, I decide instead to detour via Lucca. (Who’s chief claim to fame these days is as Puccini’s birthplace) This turns out to be both a good and bad thing.
Good, because Lucca is absolutely fab, and I fall in love with it almost immediately. But my sore feet and dishevelled state (not to mention a certain digestive delicacy) tell their own tale. Despite a) drinking huge quantities of water, b) keeping in the shade wherever possible all afternoon and c) never moving faster than a slow amble, I’m knackered and my feet hurt… I have a rigatoni al ragu to thank for the dicky tummy, I think, but perhaps it’s just general heat stress and I’m maligning an otherwise exemplary bar (the house white was fine, and I like taking my refreshment in the shade of a huge cypress) unjustly.
It didn’t just do for me, either, all my toys seem to have given up the ghost. Well, I say all ..both camera and phone batteries have expired, I hope they’re OK, it did get very hot indeed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…The train journey from Pisa is pleasantly scenic, distant rolling hills and great swathes of what I eventually realise is Bamboo all over the place.
Lucca, whilst it has a few modern-ish bits, is principaly a completely un-buggered-about-with small medieval city – complete with a full set of encircling walls. You can walk all the way around them, or hire a bike and cycle. Neither of which I did, but will make sure I do next time…and there will most definitely be a next time, I’m thinking I need to modify my original plan to return to Florence to just look at pictures in the Uffizzi to include at least an overnight stay in Lucca.
It’s lovely – winding streets, tall houses either side dotted with attractive piazzi and churches, several of which I had a look in. They’re all pretty much Romanesque, and I’m getting to be quite a fan. I think it’s the contrast between the wedding-cake exuberance of the exterior (although always constrained within a simple scheme or arches and levels, it’s all in the details) and the relative simplicity of the interiors. The fancy baroque pulpits/altars/tombs being added later, in the fashion of the day.
One of them – Santi Giovanni e Repparata – has been hacking away at the branch on which it stands, so to speak. They’ve excavated great swathes of the underpinnings to reveal a complex architectural history going all the way back to the Romans. All very interesting, with the best bits laid bare so you can see them from above. You can also descend to the lower depths and get some sense of what it’s built on (itself, mainly)…and, most memorably, look up from below the present day floor level; past all the layers into the 8thC Baptistery dome…a dizzying perspective.
It’s all explained in the notes they lend you, but a combination of the charmingly eccentric translation, the complexity of the story (the helpfully colour-coded plan looks like a mad mosaic) and the heat mean that I’ve retained very little hard information.
A bit later on, another church (the name of which sadly escapes me) and I think…’hey ho, more of the same, at least it’ll be cooler inside’…and am pulled up short, astounded, by a glowing Filippo Lippi painting hanging to one side of the alter. It almost leaps off the wall, the colours are so intensive (particularly compared to the no doubt worthy but essential dull 16th and 17th C stuff elsewhere about the place). Seeing this, and the contrast, I’m reminded again what the Pre-Raphaelites were on about, and that they may have had a point. Strangely, in retrospect I can’t actually remember what the subject of the painting was, having just retained an impression of intense, glowing colours.
These glorious things – art and buildings – have such beauty that they either make me grin like a loon or cry..or both at once.
And so it goes, as I wander about happily. Another great virtue of the place is that whilst it’s fairly busy, it’s not completely swimming with visitors, like Pisa and Florence. Via Filonga (Long thread street), the main shopping drag, is thronged, but only like a busy day in town at home.
Part of the pleasure (if, like me, you can’t be bothered to look at a map) is that you never know what’s going to be around the next corner. A piazza, a church…a tiny square full of second-hand books…or an old Palazzo with a whopping great tower…with a tree growing out of the top of it. You can climb the tower (it costs about £2.50, well worth it) so of course I can’t resist, despite a degree of nervousness about heights. It’s quite an undertaking and not recommended for the elderly or infirm. A good few flights (forgot to count how many) of worn stone steps, then a lot more steel stairs attached inside the hollow upper reaches of the tower. You might want to remove any hat you might be wearing at the top, as it’s very windy (and this on a baking hot, completely windless at ground level day – heavens knows what it’s like in winter)and I very nearly lost mine. Which would have been annoying, as I’ve had it for years and although it’s getting a bit battered now it was originally a decent Panama.
In passing, can’t help wondering why so few people wear hats when it’s this hot and sunny? Baseball caps don’t count (unless you’ve long hair or no neck), you’re still going to fry.
Anyway, hatted or not, it’s really worth dragging yourself up the 144ft and innumerable stairs, as not only do you get some stunning views (a very bad time for my camera battery to give up the ghost – swiftly followed by phone – bugger !) and some much needed coolth, it’s also strangely peaceful. Despite being fairly crowded. Instinctively, people just seem to stand and gaze, quietly. I could happily spend ages up here, but that wouldn’t be fair, as there’s not a lot of space, so I reluctantly wind my way back down again. Wondering, as I go, why anyone would want such a ridiculously tall tower in the first place. It – and the fortress-like Palazzo it’s attached to – were originally built by a family of rich merchants, the Guigini. Evidence of a turbulent past, I suppose.
It’s peaceful enough now, and apparently Lucca is one of the richest cities in Tuscany. I can’t help nurturing a profound hope that will long continue to be slightly off the main tourist trail. The Lucchese are clearly doing very well for themselves at the moment (if the very stylish shops are anything to go by). Although a babbling, sweaty, heaving mass constantly thronging the streets might give it an authentic mediaeval ambiance it would also make it good deal less pleasant place to visit.
There’s something very particular about the cheek-by-jowl nature of such places that makes them endlessly fascinating. By the very nature of the place, the internal life is just that – internal – behind high walls and in hidden courtyards. It reminds me of the Jewish Quarter in Cordoba, or the Alcazar in Granada, with the added benefit of that indefinable Italian stylishness.
After much, pleasantly random, wandering I eventually fetch up at the above-mentioned bar under a tree. Next to a table around which is ranged what – I’m probably far enough away now for safety – I can only think is the local coven. Five women ranged from ‘a certain age’ to ‘crone’, plus one (very attractive) youngster. Doubtless a daughter, or even grand-daughter. As a lone man (in a hat and rather bright shirt) I attract a certain amount of scrutiny – a foreigner, I reveal as soon as I open my mouth and try to order – not exactly hostile, but not entirely approving either. Sadly, I lack the courage to speak to them…and thus miss out on a lot of good stories, I suspect.
Later, replete and slightly drunk, I surprise myself by finding my way back to the station without trouble. All this gadding about for €19, I muse dopily on the train back to Florence. Try and do something similar at home – Oxford and Stratford in a day – well, you can’t, our train services being neither frequent or flexible enough. Even if you could, I shudder to think what it would cost. And we have the cheek to deride the Italians as lack-a-daisycall and disorganised. Why the f&*% do we seem to be the only country in Europe which can’t manage a decent public transport system?
A sombre thought to end a hugely enjoyable day, so I dismiss it and doze off to the rattle-clack…