Using Florence as my home base, I decided to get a feel for some of those iconic Tuscan villages nearby. While my drivers license is no longer valid in Europe to be able to do the classic “rent a car to drive from village to village” thing, I still had an amazing experience by rail.
I started out in Pisa where I pretty much made a beeline across town for the iconic Leaning Tower photo. I made a couple of detours and planned my route to take me by some things that Google said were important, but even the Italians agree, the only thing to see in Pisa is the tower. In fact, the tower to them is not such a big deal and my Italian flatmates were actually kinda surprised I even knew the town. They were pretty surprised when I explained how famous it is to Americans.
From the train station, the tower is straight north and so I started following the trail of people. Along the way I saw Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, Logge Dei Banchi and Comune di Pisa, walked over the Arno river, through Piazza Garibaldi, by Palazzo di Podestá, and through Piazza Martiri della Libertà (which was more like a garden) before coming to the tower.
I think what a lot of Americans don’t realize is that the tower of Pisa is part of a whole set of buildings which is the typical style for Italian churches. All the bigger churches have stand-alone baptistries and bell towers in addition to the the cathedral. So first, the lone tower we see in all the photos couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s in fact, the smallest building on the entire grounds. And second, if the tower wasn’t actually leaning, then literally no one would be looking at it compared to the studding cathedral and baptistry.
I got my tourist photo, paid a few bucks to walk along the wall that’s beside the grounds and then decided to head back. I had planned on walking back through the botanical gardens but ended up getting lost in some hospital grounds instead (still not sure if I was actually trespassing or not). I did however see the tiny church Santa Maria della Spina whose walls are actually a part of the walls of the canal it’s so close to the river.
Overall Pisa was fun and I’m glad that I went. I think that a couple hours to a half a day is plenty for the few attractions. Make sure you bring a good photo-taking buddy for the tower and get inspired by all the wacky poses everyone is doing. If you’re traveling alone like me, I would suggest just taking a bunch of selfies until someone offers to take your photo or find someone else who seems to be alone too and offer to help them first.
I absolutely loved Lucca. Of the three Tuscan villages I saw, it was by far my favorite. The old part of the city sits within historic walls which have trees and gardens and a large path to wander about on top. Outside the walls is a moat and wide open fields making the area very quiet and peaceful.
I started out wandering along the wall until I found the botanical gardens. While not very big, there is a cute little pond inside with frogs, fish, turtles, and water lilies which was teeming with life while I was there and very fun to observe. You can tell they really work hard at maintaining and expanding the gardens so it would be really cool to see it a few years from now.
After that I wandered around a bit more through Porta San Gervasio, grabbed myself a melon flavored ice cream cone (pure heaven) and then climbed one of the two most famous towers in the city, Torre Guinigi. It’s a beautiful tower made with red bricks and actually has a garden (well, more like a handful of trees) on top which was so unique. The views of the city were so beautiful from there that I didn’t feel the need to climb the clock tower too.
I also saw Duomo di San Martino which was particularly stunning. In the evening the sun filters through the stained glass in the back of the church in the most beautiful of ways. I saw Palazzo Ducale di Lucca, Piazza Napoleone, Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni e Reparata and Cheese di San Giusto. I decided to eat dinner in Lucca just to extend my time in the city a bit more and had a wonderful tagliatelle with truffle for such a good price compared to the big cities.
If you couldn’t tell already, I loved the city and would highly recommend you to see it for yourself. I only had a half day there and I wish that I had more time but for a recommendation, I think that a half day is fine in terms of being able to see everything. But if you think you might fall in love with the quiet little village then maybe plan on a full day.
Unfortunately the last leg of my Tuscan journey didn’t go as smoothly as the others. I missed my train because I was looking for a direct train to Siena without realizing I needed a different train before connecting to Siena. Usually there are a handful of train attendants running around the station but the only one I could find blew me off as it was finally my turn in line to talk to her and never returned.
An hour later I was able to get on my first train but unfortunately, the connection to Siena was covered by a bus and not a train like the original route. While it was cool that I got to see much more of the little towns dotted around the region, the bus got caught in markets and even made a wrong turn at one point and so I ended up arriving to Siena at noon instead of 10 am. Considering my bus left for to Rome at 3:25, it really was a big blow to my schedule.
I ended up being able to cross everything off of my must-see list despite the time crunch and the fact that the entire city is uphill and was a sunny, windless 80F/27C degrees. It would have been nice to leisurely walk through the city because it has a lot of the same vibes as Lucca but much bigger with a startling lack of greens and an abundance of red bricks.
I grabbed a ticket for the city bus to take me up to the city center from the train station which was by far the most antiquated and confusing ticket machine of my life. A German couple and I were trying to figure it out at the same time and (not that it was a competition but…) I figured it out first which kinda makes me a bit happy considering they more than likely grew up with ticket machines and public transport whereas I’ve only been dealing with it for 2 years.
Anyways, from where the bus dropped me I hurried up to Palazzo Pubblico in Piazza del Campo, passing by Palazzo Bichi and Palazzo Salimbeni on the way. From there I went up to Duomo and bought a combo ticket to the Cathedral, museum, library, crypts, and wall. I would have loved to see the crypts but I ran out of time and I could only step into the library for a quick photo before leaving, but I was able to go up on the wall to get a beautiful sweeping view of the city which made the bundle ticket totally worth it.
I power walked/jogged back to my city bus just in time (no small feat for those who know how bad my knees are, especially when going downhill). From the train station, I stopped by the cute little mall they have, washed up and finally grabbed some lunch at 3:15 pm from the grocery store. My bus to Rome was on time and an eventless journey. What happens after is a story for a different post.
I really liked Siena and although I wouldn’t make an effort to come back, I do wish that I had more time in the city. They have a Museum of Torture that looked so unique and interesting that I wish I had seen and a bunch of giant cathedrals I wish I could have gone in. I think a full half day would have been sufficient to appreciate the city.