Montopoli in Val d'Arno, Tuscany, Italy Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Before leaving Happy Camping we visited Cesena, an old town some 30km from the sea. Here there is a magnificent 15th century castle on the hill in the town centre, built by the inevitable Malatesta people, and an amazing library, the first Municipal Library in Italy, donated to the town by another Malatesta in 1452. The library still contains the original books, chained to the pew-like reading tables.
Then we upped camp and moved to Tuscany, to a pleasant site called Toscana Village in the small town of Montopoli, between Florence and Pisa. It's a nice site, though obviously it would be a lot nicer in the summer, when the swimming pool and pizzeria would be open. The toilet block is clean and modern, fully enclosed and heated, which is great. Unfortunately the washing-up and laundry facilities are in the open, which isn't so good when it rains! The countryside here is very pretty, with rolling wooded hills, fertile valleys and hilltop villages, always with the distant view of the Apennines, which this morning were snow covered.
As I lay awake in the small hours of this morning listening to the rain drumming on the roof I contemplated the dreadful day we had had yesterday. It wasn't really dreadful, just that a number of unnecessarily tedious incidents had set me going on a good old JJ rant. Fortunately for you the morning was bright and sunny, with snow on the distant mountains, so much of the rant was forgotten.
The day had started reasonably well, apart from the cold wet weather. We had booked the car in for a service at a Hyundai dealer in nearby Empoli. The plan was to drop the car off, take the train to Siena, spend a nice
day sightseeing, and then pick the car up late afternoon. The dealer was very pleasant, and better still offered us a lift to the station. Because of the weather we had decided to get the train to Florence instead of Siena. We have not been to
Siena and thought it better to see it for the first time in a good light, as it were.
We purchased tickets from the machine, which amazingly gave change, then on to the platform to find several thousand people standing there. We thought we were lucky to be in time for the 9:02, to find that these people were waiting for the 8:14, the 8:35 and the 8:50 commuter trains into Florence! Of course when it finally arrived the already full train became like a sardine can. Because of thecold weather the heating was on full blast, everyone's wet clothing was steaming, the windows were completely opaque so we had no idea where we were, then a Chinese girl fainted. A huge black African street umbrella salesman lifted her on to his seat, and she was promptly surrounded by dozens of Italians all offering help, support, advice, all conflicting and all in a language she could not understand. It seemed obvious to me that she was simply suffering from the heat and the crowd, but there were all sorts of diagnoses, ranging from strokes through heart attacks to diabetic comas. She was even forced to eat a sachet of sugar. Many people in the carriage were reaching out to touch her as if she was some sort of saint or vision. Eventually the "senior conductor" arrived and she was helped off at the next station, never to be seen again.
The next incident was at Florence SMN (Santa Maria Novella) station. Here there are no signs telling you where to get out of the station. We ended up in a subterranean shopping precinct going round in circles. When we eventually found fresh air we had to fight our way through a solid mass of taxis and umbrella salesmen and through countless muddy puddles to cross the road to the first stop on our brief itinerary, the church of the aforementioned SMN. When we had visited here in 1998 we just walked in. Now we had to pay, only to find that the Uccello frescos and Brunelleschi crucifix we wanted to see were in a part closed for restoration. Then we could not get the best picture of the façade of the church as the square was being dug up. At the next church, Ognissanti, the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio was in a part inaccessible without permission of the abbot, which of course we did not have. Off to the Palazzo Vecchio where Michelangelo's statue of David (well it isn't really, it's just a copy) was cordoned off for restoration. The Italians have a wonderful way of dealing with their important art works. They remove them from public view and put them in a museum or gallery where you have to pay to see them. Then they erect copies which they can shroud for "restoration". The original David is in the Accademia, where you have to queue for hours and pay a small fortune. The artistically important statues around the Orsanmichele have all been replaced with copies; you pay to go inside to see the originals. The important statues in and around the Duomo, and the Baptistery doors, are all copies, you have to pay to go into the Museo dell' Opere to see the originals. In all fairness this has been done to protect them from the poisonous atmosphere, but why not make some money out of it as well.
On the way we stopped for the usual coffee and bun. Every other coffee bar we have stopped at in Italy has charged €5 or €5.50 for a double espresso, an americano and two buns/pastries. Here, in a very ordinary back street coffee bar, the price was €18. That's £15 for an inch of black coffee, a half inch of black coffee with some frothed milk, a rock bun and a croissant. Later on we had a much better deal, two slices of pizza and a beer for €10, but the pizza was lukewarm. The whole time in Florence there was a cold wind with rain or drizzle. I was freezing, in spite of vest, shirt, sweatshirt, fleece and cagoule. Lesley had forgotten her hat and gloves and was perished.
We eventually took the train back to Empoli and walked the mile to the garage, only taking two wrong turns en route, to be told that the car was not ready yet. I had pointed out some uneven wear on one front tyre and had asked them to swap that wheel with the back one and to check the balance & tracking etc. They had not done that yet, it would be another hour. We walked back to the station for a coffee, being passed on the way by our car racing off to wherever they do the tracking amendments. When we returned an hour and a half later, no car. It eventually turned up after another twenty minutes, and then the fun began. In England the procedure is simple. You turn up at the agreed time, sign a form, leave your keys, come back later, pay some money and get your car back. Not in Italy. Here you have to provide passport, ID card, social security number, registration document and driving licence, all of which are photocopied, before you can even see the car. It is no wonder that there is so much major crime in Italy going unpunished. The police spend all their time working through boxes of papers to ensure that there is a photocopy of a passport for every invoice.
We had even had to provide a photocopy of passport when we went into an Internet café a few days earlier. I don't know if identity fraud has caught on yet in Italy, but if anyone wants to they could break into virtually any office and get all the information they need on hundreds if not thousands of people.
Then there is the laborious method of working out the bill. The initial worksheet was in quintuplicate, requiring two signatures on the front and signatures against small print on the rear of two of the forms. (No idea what the small print was, it was all in Italian and I did not have a magnifying glass). When it comes to paying, all these details are written out on an invoice, then all the work details and prices are copied from a computer screen onto the handwritten invoice. The invoice is in quadruplicate, one for the customer, one for the garage, one for the accountant and one for the police. The whole paying procedure took nearly an hour!
But that was just one day and is past. Most of our days are really good, whether going to visit sights or just relaxing.
Sunday we visited the nearby town of Lucca, yet another beautiful mediaeval town with Roman origins. The narrow streets and tall buildings block out almost all light at this time of year, ideal in the summer but not so in winter! However there were many
fine examples of Tuscan/Pisan/Florentine architecture and a number of tall towers, one of which, the Guinigi tower, even has trees growing on top of it. We climbed it for some amazing views of the city and countryside. They also have a Roman
amphitheatre in Lucca, which they dismantled long ago, using the stones to build one of the churches (San Frediano) and the foundations for a very different type of city square (or oval actually).
Monday was the day of the aforementioned trip to Florence. We had "done" Florence in 1998, and Lesley had spent some time there in 1968, so the main aim of the trip was to see a few items which we had not seen previously and to revisit some old favourites.
In that respect it was a successful day. Our main target was the Museo dell' Opere del Duomo, where many sculptures and panels from the Duomo and the Baptistery are stored for safekeeping from the elements. Of special interest were the Pieta by Michelangelo, his last work, unfinished, and the cantoria by Della Robbia, the carvings from the original choir. These latter are the most exquisite and lifelike sculptures I have seen. They are of children playing music, singing and generally enjoying life. The facial expressions are perfect, and, unlike many other renaissance sculptures and paintings, are of children, not of miniature adults or of podgy cherub-like things. Despite the travel problems and weather, it was still an enjoyable day.
Tomorrow, weather permitting, it's off to San Gimignano and Siena.