Wednesday, 29th October 2003


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This morning's wake-up call was the shrill noise of workmen drilling outside. It was more dentists drill than jack hammers as it certainly made my fillings ache! At least it stopped us from oversleeping because today we were planning to travel to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. To most people, myself included, it's just the usual tourist stop over but for Julie it was actually fulfilling a childhood wish.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Mona Lisa were the two things she always wanted see as a young child. (Doesn't it sound suspiciously like a line from a nursery rhyme?) Anyway, she saw Mona hanging in the Louvre over 10 years ago, so it was great that today she was about to complete the dream.

But first breakfast! Isn't it strange how our habits change whilst we're on holiday. We start doing things that we would never think of doing at home. For breakfast I've now started to get a taste for drizzling olive oil over bruschetta, more commonly known as cold crusty slices of bread. How peculiar!

We walked to the train station and after some head scratching at the self-service machine we queued up to buy a ticket from a real live ticket officer instead. We scoured the timetable to find which platform we needed but it took us ages before we realised that we were looking for the train destined for Livorno, which stops at Pisa along the way.

We had time for a coffee, so at the café I confidently stepped up and asked "Due espresso, per favore" and he understood! We have a result! I felt like continuing the conversation, such as "Good Morning, my name is Colin. I'm Welsh. It's a beautiful day. I love you!" But I didn't. The intense shot of coffee was just what I needed, but Julie doesn't really like her coffee that strong. Sadly she had to suffer because I didn't know the Italian for "and a glass of diet coke, please"!

We still had 25 minutes before the train left but we decided to stamp our ticket and board the train. We were glad we did because as we left the station stressed people with large bags were walking depressingly up and down the train looking for a seat. We sat back and relaxed. Worryingly, the nearer to Pisa we got, the heavier the rain became. We had packed our brollies, but when we stepped outside the train station we realised that our brollies would be neither use nor ornament.

Then, in a complete moment of madness we decided to walk!? It wasn't far but it was quite literally pissing it down. Brollies at the ready, head down, we marched towards the river Arno. We crossed the bridge in a quick march hardly noticing the pretty little church to our right. On the other side we found Via Roma, the road that led towards Campo di Miracoli and the Leaning Tower. We were increasingly getting sodden, our jeans were soaking up the rain water like sponges.

At the end of the street we could see the church but no tower as yet.

Then, as we turned the corner we saw the Leaning Tower in all its glory for the first time, it was incredible, almost emotional.

By now it was not just pissing it down, it had progressed to bucketing, with thunder grumbling in the hills.

So we sought refuge undercover at ristorante L'Europa and decided to have lunch. The standard was very basic, but it was edible. The bill came to 24Euros which was over priced for what we had, but at least they had one of those patio heaters to keep us warm, and it gave me an opportunity to use my visa in Pisa!

I actually tittered to myself that I used my "visa" in "Pisa". It's quite sad really to admit that I have such a childish sense of humour! (Incidentally, did you know that "The Leaning Tower of Pisa" is an anagram of "What a foreign stone pile"!?)

By some bizarre coincidence, whilst we were eating, we were hassled by a Senegalese watch sales man!

We exchanged pleasantries, established our nationalities, but he then left in a huff when we didn't buy that lovely Gocci watch!

The hour spent eating our lunch couldn't have been better timed, because as we returned to Campo di Miracoli the sun came out and clear blue skies became the perfect backdrop for my photos.

Quite a miracle!

I brought out my camera and went a bit trigger happy, like a demented member of the paparazzi, with the tower as my supermodel.

Julie even apologised for getting in the way of some of the shots, but that may have been her sarcasm!

We went to the ticket office but as they control the amount of people who climb up the tower, the next available time slot was over an hour away.

Also it would have cost 15 Euros each! So we decided to pass on the experience.

We consoled ourselves by agreeing that the only thing worth seeing was the tower, and that's the one thing you can't see from the top of it!

We did buy a ticket to go inside the Duomo. Its interior was surprisingly very striking. It had a fascinating, if a little morbid, glass sarcophagus that contained the saintly remains of Beata Christina of Spoleto. She must of had amateur embalmers because she look all of her 500 years. Certainly not as well preserved as the 80 years dead Lenin.

The duomo's exterior was also very beautiful, and in my mind more than a rival to the Duomo in Florence. Perhaps if it had a bigger cupola then it would attract more attention! It was more of a B size cupola compared to the DD of Florence!

Then there was the Baptistry which was arguably the most attractive structure here.


There were a few market stalls nearby where we bought a fridge magnet and a tiny plaster cast of the leaning tower.

The range of tatty souvenirs for sale was astonishing; and if you suffered completely from the total absence of taste then you could end up buying a 3ft leaning tower that doubles up as an ash tray! It would also double up as a convenient battering ram if you wanted to break down a door!

We left Campo di Miracoli back along Via Roma where we stood and had one last look at the leaning tower. We had really enjoyed seeing one of Italy's iconic attractions. It may be over exposed and a tourist trap but for a wonky tower it was very captivating.

As we crossed the river we had more time to look at the view, and it was surprisingly picturesque. Once again almost the equal of what Florence had to offer.

Sadly Pisa doesn't have many more attractions to entice the traveller.

We reached the station at 2pm, having just missed a train to Florence by seconds. Of course we then spent three quarters of an hour sitting at the platform waiting for the next. We had that mild panic of "are we on the right train?" again but when we reached the familiar sight of Empoli we breathed a little easier.

We got to Florence at 4pm and were glad to see the puddled streets as it meant we hadn't suffered unnecessary wetness by going to Pisa.

As we past the church of Santa Maria in Novella we decided to go inside.

The highlight for me was a faded fresco called the Trinity by Masaccio. There were many others but none that captured the emotion of this one.

We only had an hour's respite in our hotel before we decided to go out early to beat the queues for 'Il Latini'. We were the first to arrive outside the restaurant at 7pm. Another three eager beavers arrived soon after us.

We had half an hour to wait before they were to open their doors, in the meantime we had to stand outside in the pouring rain, cowering beneath sagging umbrellas, watching the staff inside enjoy their meal. What twisted torture!

With about five minutes to go our resolve nearly cracked. We couldn't take much more and thought about leaving. It was like some endurance game show where we had to really suffer for our supper. We turned around and saw that there was a huge crowd behind us. This place must have one hell of a good reputation! So we decided to hang on in there.

With only a few minutes to go a couple pushed their way through the crowd, shoving past us, right up to the door, and walked in. The staff told them to wait outside. Which they did, but they stayed at the very front instead of returning back to where they came from. Now I'm not a man of violence but I came over all psycho. I found myself compelled to poke my umbrella spikes into the back of the gentleman's head. I was hearing voices saying "Go on, poke the bastard".

The deadly sin of Anger had taken a serious hold of me!

Finally the doors open, we were allowed to enter, and we were ceremonially received. The doorman bellowed out our name "Owen" and that we were a couple of two; then another guy showed us to our table.

We were a little confused as we were sat at the end of a long table that sat eight people. Three other couples were then joined us at the table. We felt as if we had gate crashed someone's wedding party, not knowing any of the guests!

Those immediately next to us were Spanish, and spoke no English, next to them were an Italian couple, who spoke no Spanish nor English, and at the end was an elderly Christopharian couple who were hard of hearing! So it didn't bode well for international relations! A bit like the United Nations. To add to the UN vibe a large group of raucous Japanese tourist were having a ball behind us! Too much Saki? Bridget Jones's mother's quote "Such a cruel race" did come to mind but I wouldn't agree with that. It's just that jovial Japanese is such a harsh language on the ears!

We had a bottle of water and a large litre bottle of the house Chianti on the table, placed between us and the Spaniards. The waiter came along grunted something, and opened them both, then walked off. We soon realised that these were to share with our table buddies, but we were all being very polite and only drinking thimbles full at a time as not to appear to be hogging the wine.

Next the waiter came along and handed everyone a plate of crostini, and I mean everyone in the entire restaurant. Both Julie and I declined. They then went round everybody asking for their choice of either soup or pasta. No sign of a menu, not even a moment to think about. They were rushing us and impatient. I asked for Ribolita only because I remember seeing it on the only menu that I had seen, which was on display outside. Julie again declined. They wrote nothing down, and worked their way around everybody.

My soup arrived and it was very tasty. All the individual ingredients had kept their distinctive flavours and shape but I much prefer the more rustic mushy version from Mario's. We were getting a bit concerned that we still hadn't seen a menu. Then from nowhere waiter appeared, reeling off a list of meats in Italian. Julie had previously decided to try lamb tonight, and luckily I remembered that it was called Agnello. Then came my turn.

Here I was in a den of hanging hams, stuffed pigs heads, and where the only choices seemed to be meat, meat and more meat, and I actually felt a little nervous about having to hold my hand up and say "I am a vegetarian"!

He was quite gracious about it despite rolling his eyes in mock-humour. He suggested Spinach & Ricotta Ravioli in a tomato sauce, and I accepted it without hesitation as not to cause a scene. When it arrived he joked that it was a meaty Ravioli, and shuffled off chucking to himself. Yeah yeah very funny; like I haven't heard that one before! The dish was adequate, nothing to get excited over.

Julie's lamb was disappointing. It appeared quite large but it was mostly bone. She had to tear shreds of meat off the bone like a vulture with a carcass. Our table buddies had huge slabs of beef or pork, and the Italian lady had a far better leg of lamb than Julie's. A spot of favouritism perhaps? Hot on the tails of anger we felt earlier we were now brewing up a sinful storm of Envy!

After we had all finished eating we were all given a glass of Marsala and some biscotti. I instinctively dipped my biscuit into the drink. Julie looked at me as if I were behaving like a pleb! No one else joined in until they saw the Italians do it, then like a Mexican wave, everyone was dunking!

It were as if they'd thought, "well, he's British, what does he know?; but hang on a minute, the Italians are doing it. Now they must know what they're doing!"

After my Tiramisu and then some espresso, we sat there for quite a while.

Since walking through those doors we'd been told where to sit, what to do, what to eat, and so we were waiting to be told that we could leave the table!

Finally the head waiter came around with a sweaty big guy, who I assumed was the owner, and recited to him all that we had. With his sticky little trotters he scribbled out our bill and we handed over 55Euros. What riled us more was that there was plenty of wine left over, and we had paid for half the bottle. At least we had out-drunk our Spanish rivals by 8 glasses to 6, so it could have been worse.

Well, was the experience of "Il Latini" just like a Fellini film? I don't know, but I did watch La Dolce Vita and was left a little confused, so I guess it was!

Il Latini certainly isn't the place to be if you're looking for an intimate meal for two. But if you're amongst a larger group of friends, and knew your agnello from your elbow, then the whole performance would create the perfect atmosphere for a great night. Just ask the Japanese group behind me, they really had a blast.

As we left, people were queuing outside ready for the second sitting at 9pm.I felt compelled to warn any couples about what they were going to experience but I didn't bother.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a bar called Café Megara. We sat down in the corner, the perfect people watching seats.

We enjoyed a few glasses of lager and Prossecco.

We saw many look-alikes, such as the spit of Jeffrey Archer, a Mediterranean version of Gwyneth Paltrow, and the nanny from the TV comedy "Cold Feet" working behind the bar!

I wonder if anyone took a double take of me thinking they'd just seen Billy Connolly! Oh, I hope not!

We spent most of the time putting the world to rights. The bill came to 22Euros which was extortionate even if we did get a bowl of crispy coated peanuts for nothing.

We returned to our hotel and sat up talking to the small hours of the morning. Boy, the world was a better place after we had finished!

Thursday 30th October >>

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