ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: ELEVENTH DAY
CHIAVARI TO FLORENCE
MONDAY 29 MARCH
'Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.'
I couldn’t help overhearing what the rather earnest young backpacker was saying to the terribly polite Dutch couple sitting opposite him on the train, who smiled back indulgently at him.
I tried to assume an air of tolerant curiosity - not always easy with the kind of hangover I had that morning - and asked him to repeat what he’d just said.
Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.
I was barely awake and already the day was taking on a surreal, and deeply unsettling, tone.
Monday morning. Italy was going to work. A new week had begun in this little coastal town and, as Saro drove me to the station, there was a very different feel to it. The romantic, gas-lit street-markets, the crowded trattoria, families walking sociably and lazily around the town square - it had all been replaced by the noise of cars, buses and bicycles jostling for the available road space, cursing pedestrians soaked to the skin by the gentle Ligurian drizzle and rushing to the station or to bus-stops or to and from car parks.
It was almost not the same town. The space and gentile quietness available on Sunday night for quiet twilight strolling had been taken over completely by screeching brakes and car horns. It felt as if I was in the middle of Rome.
And I had a headache which seemed out of all proportion to the meagre quantities of wine I had drunk last night. At least, they had seemed meagre at the time. It was my Grand Tour’s first real hangover.
The drizzle was turning to rain as I rushed into the station. I turned to take a final look at the town but it was almost invisible behind the rain and the traffic. I also wanted to wave Saro goodbye but he’d already gone. I watched as he drove madly up to the end of the street, cut in front of a crowded bus and turned right into a ‘no right turn’. Somehow I realised that I would never see him again, quirky hospitality notwithstanding.
The opposite - northbound - platform was crowded with commuters. Genoa (properly Genova) is only a few kilometres up the line. It’s a big city and obviously draws a hefty proportion of its workforce from its hinterland, of which Chiavari is a part. Almost everyone seemed to have a small cup of takeaway coffee, gripped lovingly in both hands. There weren’t many umbrellas to be seen but hats, scarves, overcoats and gloves were in abundance - evidence that the morning was what Italians regard as ‘cold’, despite the steam that was drifting up from the platform surface.
‘Cold’. Hmmmmm. It was already in the low twenties and I felt self-conscious when I undid another button of my shirt and stepped out from under the awning to allow the rain to cool me down. I knew perfectly well how foolish I must have looked but, at this stage on my Grand Tour, I don’t particularly care.
There are few, if any, commuter-friendly cities south of Chiavari, though. Pisa and Livorno are the nearest in that direction and they don’t seem to have the economic clout of Genoa to the north. (Why, incidentally - and as Saro took the trouble to point out - do You English change the name of Livorno to Leghorn, a name with no aesthetic value whatsoever?)
This meant that, although my train was by no means empty, there were lots of spare seats. I chose one on the right-hand (sea-facing) side and settled down to enjoy the views as the train pulled out of Chiavari towards La Spezia, Viareggio and Pisa.
And, at first, it was undoubtedly the views that grabbed my attention. The morning was overcast, the clouds were of varying shades of blue to dark grey and seemed to me to match the drama of the coastal cliffs we were passing beneath. Even the Mediterranean was roused from its usual torpor and crashed against the boulders along the foreshore as the train wound its way along from Liguria back into Tuscany. Once in a while I found myself ducking as the waves bounced up against the train window. It was very exciting!
One of the stops along the way was Carrara. In my researches for the Grand Tour, I’d heard about the marble quarried hereabouts. It was used to build the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column in Rome and Michaelangelo swore by it; his David, in Florence, is carved from a block of Carrara marble. It’s highly-prized to this day and it was interesting to see the many marble-yards by the railway line. Blocks of white and cream marble, some of them the size of small bungalows, banked together behind acres of barbed wire.
There’s still money to be made from Carrara marble.
We were about halfway to Pisa when the conversation going on around me suddenly diverted my attention from the stormy morning outside. I found myself listening in as the curly-haired - and not totally unattractive - young man sitting opposite me explained to the couple across the aisle that he was visiting Pisa as part of his backpacking trip ‘to see if their Leaning Tower is as good as ours’.
He was American and spoke with that vague, unplaceable American accent which made it impossible to determine which of the fifty states he was from. (We found out later that it was Colorado and that his name was Steve.)
Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.
His comment about the Leaning Tower puzzled and amused me as much as it did the Dutch couple to whom he was speaking. We all looked at him and, I think, wondered whether to change our seats. Summoning up a sense of reason from I know not where, I asked him what he meant by ‘ours’.
‘We have the Leaning Tower too,’ he said.
‘Hell yeah. It’s totally awesome’. (I’m not making this up. I made copious notes about it as soon as I got off the train.)
‘You mean,’ I ventured to continue ‘that there’s another Leaning Tower of Pisa which isn’t in Pisa?’
‘Yes sure,’ he said. ‘It’s in Niles.’ He said ‘Niles’ as if we ought to have heard of it. It was obvious that none of us had. ‘Niles, Illinois’ he said. We still hadn’t heard of it.
He opened a notebook in front of him on the table. It was full of scribblings, drawings, charts and maps. ‘I’m doing Leaning Towers’, he said. ‘Gotta start with Pisa!’
I felt intrigued and unsettled at the same time. How many Leaning Towers were there? And why had this all-American boy-next-door backpacker decided to visit them all? Perhaps, I thought, he was a trainee architect spending his gap-year on a fun thesis for his Master’s. On the other hand, he could be exhibiting Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of the most extraordinary kind.
He scuttled through the pages of his notebook, telling us about Leaning Towers he intended to visit in Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain and Britain.
‘Britain?’ I asked. ‘There’s a Leaning Tower in Britain?’
‘Sure. There’s eight.’
I asked him if I could write down his list of the eight Leaning Towers of Britain. Here is the list.
*the ruined Great Tower of Bridgnorth Castle, Bridgnorth, England
*the southeast tower of Caerffili Castle, Wales
*the Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast, Northern Ireland
*the tower of Temple Church in Bristol, England
*Greyfriars Tower - the remains of a Franciscan monastery in King's Lynn, England
*the spire of the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield, England
*the tower of St Martin's Church at Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire, Wales.
*Bateman's Tower in Brightlingsea, Essex, England.
For shame. I looked at the list and realised the scale of my misjudgement.
My friend Sue lives in Herefordshire, in the Welsh Marches. Not far from her house lies the tiny village of Cwmyoy, just inside Wales. About ten years ago, Sue took me there to see the church’s amazing Leaning Tower, which looks as if it would much rather be down in the valley below than perched on its hillside, and is taking active steps to get there - very slowly.
Kathy lives in Chesterfield. Less than a year ago I was once again gaping up at the crazy ‘Twisted Spire’ of Chesterfield church, which looks as if it’s suffering from the same kind of Grand Hangover that was afflicting me.
About 20 years ago I visited Bridgnorth and marvelled at the castle’s Great Tower. Cromwell had tried, and failed, to blow it up and it leans heavily to the north to this day.
On the walls there’s a notice about another castle whose tower leans, and for the same reason. Caerffili.
This innocent and perfectly pleasant lad, about whom I had been inwardly so sceptical, had simply decided to add extra interest and ‘spice’ to his backpacking holiday round Europe by giving it a quirky theme. He had done his research thoroughly and passionately.
I hope he becomes somebody famously eccentric so that I recognise him on tv or radio and can remind myself - yet again, and as if I will need to - that the world lines up surprises for us round every corner, wherever we happen to be. Even on a local slow-train on a stormy Monday morning in deepest rural Tuscany.
When I left the train at Pisa, I shook Steve’s hand and wished him a happy and rewarding vacation.
I wonder how it went. I so wish I’d given him my phone number or email address.
While I was waiting for my connecting train from Pisa to Florence, I took out my trusty notebook and scubbled down a few ideas for themed holidays of my own. I call them my Leaning Tower holidays…
*visit only places beginning with A - Avignon, Antwerp, Aberdeen, Athens…
*visit places featured on each of the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps - 204 in all…
*make a list of Europe’s most impressive, historic or exciting bridges - and visit them…
*plan a battlefield peregrination…
*visit the birthplaces of 10 of my favourite composers…
*visit 5 places where some of my favourite films were shot…
*go and see a few more Leaning Towers, including the one at Niles, Illinois…
Then the Florence train arrived.
Continental trains are not the same as ours. They are usually (but by no means always) more comfortable, more punctual - and faster. Contrary to popular belief, though, they are generally not cheaper than English trains. Because of the cursed system whereby what you pay for your seat depends on when you book it - now universal throughout the countries I visited - I think that our prices and theirs balance out.
The big differences lie, I think, in what you get for your money; all those small things which, when taken together, make the experience of travelling by train in continental Europe vary so much from our day-to-day journeys at home.
Electronic seat reservations, for example, have been in use over there for a decade or more. Each reservable seat has a small electronic ‘window‘ attached to it. This tells you if the seat is reserved, and if it is, from where to where. In England, most trains still appear to use a system that could easily have been invented by George Stephenson himself; flimsy bits of paper or card are slotted into the backs of seats - so that they can easily be removed by anyone so inclined.
On German Inter City Express (ICE) trains, every passenger is given a specially-printed itinerary for the journey. It gives you the train’s full timing, tells you about all intermediate stations and any connexions you can make there.
Throughout the continent, double-decker trains are now very common. I’m still juvenile enough to find them terrifically exciting. Being rushed through undulating French countryside 15 feet up on the top deck of a TGV doesn’t half get my ageing adrenaline flowing.
The fact that you’re sitting in comparative comfort helps, of course. Continental trains seem to be roomier, although I still can’t decide whether this is reality or an illusion resulting from their design. Certainly, when I returned to England and caught my final train to Newcastle from London, it felt overcrowded even though it wasn’t full by any means. I suppose it must be something to do with the way the seats are placed.
Train announcements, too, are of a different order. In Germany, they don’t just tell you the name of the station you’re approaching but also which side of the train the platform will be on.
And in Germany and Italy, train announcements are always in at least two languages, one of which is always English. (Incredibly, on the train between Munich and Verona, four languages were used: German, Italian, French and English.) Station signage too is always bilingual.
This is extraordinarily helpful, of course, and makes our train system at home seem positively unfriendly and unwelcoming. In an age of international travel - more and more of it by eco-friendly train - it’s unbelievable that our trains here at home still make the contemptuous and arrogant assumption that everyone on board speaks perfect English and can understand it even when it’s spoken in a heavy Geordie or Yorkshire accent.
Every country’s trains have their own idiosyncrasies, of course. English trains have by far the most colourful liveries, I think. Swiss railways are engineered to be able to climb like mountain goats amongst the Alps. French trains serve the best snack-bar food (although German trains come a close second). Belgian and Dutch trains seem to be the most frequent; they seem to be criss-crossing their respective countries endlessly, day and night.
As for You Italians….
The one single fact that everyone seems to know about Italian trains is that Mussolini made them run on time. Naturally, this is very far from being the case. The Italian railway system’s refurbishment had been substantially completed before Mussolini came to power.
What he did do, however, is instigate the rebuilding of virtually all of the country’s mainline stations. And what an amazing bunch they are, too; strident monuments to the prevailing, and rather severe, art deco style of the times (the 1930s). Flights of steps leading up to rigidly pillared porticos, vast concourses (often with mosaics around the upper walls), huge windows and characteristic 1930s lettering on all the original signs and notices. And all faced with polished marble.
It seems that part of Mussolini’s mission, of which many Italians still approve, was to rid Italy of its ‘stuck-in-the-Dark-Ages’ tweeness. And, with his station-building programme, he almost succeeded.
The ones I used made up an awesome collection of monumental architecture, notwithstanding their faintly fascist overtones. As works of art, I loved them. They were splendid places to wait, to arrive at and to depart from.
And I was just about to arrive in Florence again.
It was mid-afternoon on Monday, and it was time I turned my attention to present-buying.
I am the first to admit that, unlike many people I know, I do not have any kind of flair for buying gifts for people. Birthdays, Christmas, holiday souvenirs - I can usually be relied on to buy something that’s not necessarily ‘wrong’, just hopelessly inappropriate and/or inadequate.
On my first rip abroad - on a school trip to Germany when I was 16 - I brought back a clothes-brush for my mother.
I’m not sure what this infacility says about me and, to be honest, I’d rather not think about it. All I knew, standing on the steps of Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, was that, this time, I would make amends.
When I'd asked Massimo and Stefano about this, they'd made a couple of suggestions which I now decided to follow up. In doing so, I stepped straight out of the 21st century into the heady days of Florence’s Renaissance heyday and into the ancient arts and crafts of Tuscany.
Just five minutes’ walk from the station is one of the city’s hidden treasures; a place you need someone like Massimo and Stefano to tell you about. It’s called the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and it’s one of the oldest perfumeries in the world. They’ve been concocting beautiful aromas and fragrances here since the 15th century; it’s a palace of perfume. It’s breathtaking - literally.
An ordinary-looking street door leads to a long, statue-lined corridor, up a few steps and into the grand parlour. The photographs don’t really do it justice; no photograph ever could. This - and the two other rooms beyond - stop you in your tracks. Marble-tiled floors, ancient glass-fronted display cabinets 12 feet high, baroque painted ceilings. I spent half an hour just taking pictures and then felt compelled to make a small purchase, as you do.
I bought a bottle of aqua colonia - eau-de-cologne. It would have been more sensible, of course, to have bought eau-de-Cologne in Cologne instead of in Florence. I’d been to Cologne, after all, and hadn’t bought any there. So what my purchase amounted to was two missed opportunities.
See what I mean about present-buying?
It was getting seriously cloudy as I walked from the perfumery, through the Piazza del Duomo and along a typically narrow Florentine alleyway towards my next port of call: Sbigoli Terrecotte.
This little terracotta kiln and workshop has been here since 1850 - and it was ‘the business’, as they say. The small shop’s walls were covered with Tuscan terracotta whose colours were so hot and vibrant that I needed a drink of water to cool down. Every plate, saucer, coffee-cup and bowl was different. The designs - some pictorial, some semi-abstract - were all traditionally Tuscan. The colours were deep and vivid. I knew at once that, brought home as souvenirs, any of them would bring the brightest Italian sunshine into the dullest English midwinter.
I spent a wonderful half hour with owners Antonella and Valentino, who showed me the kiln in the back workshop, and how they derive their designs, all of which are hand-painted onto the ceramics.
As I walked back to my B&B, two things happened.
Firstly, I realised I was more typically English than I’d been willing to admit heretofore. I’d spent the entire time in the shop apologising for my lack of Italian - in English.
And secondly - it started to rain. At first lightly but, within a few seconds, very heavily indeed.
I was halfway home when the storm really started. The rain came down in sheets so thick that visibility was severely impaired. It bounced hard and high of the streets and pavements. Repeated flashes of lightning lit up the darkling sky and the thunder, cracking and roaring directly overhead, was deafening.
I was soaked to the skin in seconds and, I’m not entirely ashamed to say, not a little afraid. I hadn’t experienced a storm like this in years and - according to Massimo later - neither had Florence. Drains overflowed and traffic lights cut out.
For shelter, I dipped into a small flower shop and bought a cactus (of all things). But the transaction didn’t take as long as I’d hoped, despite my attempts to engage the shopkeeper in a conversation about the storm, and by the time I arrived at the flat I must have looked like a Titanic survivor who’d been swimming since 1912.
I gave the wretched, waterlogged cactus to Massimo, who smiled drily (how else?), told me that he was cooking a special Tuscan evening meal for me, gave me a glass of wine and told me to strip off my wet clothes.
At last, I thought. My hangover has finally dissipated. My luck has changed.
'Did you know,' I said 'that not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.'
Not all those who wander are lost....
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