Mediterranean Enchantment – 2009
Catacombs and Ship Noordam at Civitavecchia
April 26 - May 10, 2009
Updated July 4, 2009
By LEWIS NOLAN
To view photo album of 128 pictures mainly taken by Betty Nolan, go to www.ritzpix.com and sign in under Lewis’ email name of firstname.lastname@example.org (password ln9876 with lower case initials). Under “My Albums,” activate “Rome and Mediterranean Enchantment” album and play as a Slideshow with longest offered delay in seconds.
Thursday, April 30, 2009 – To Livorno, Italy and long bus ride to Florence and Pisa
I was up early on the ship at 5:30 a.m. to give me plenty of time for a good breakfast before boarding a tour bus arranged by Holland America for the long drive to see the sights of Florence and the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Breakfast was delicious and was delivered on time. It consisted of two scrambled eggs, three pieces of tasty bacon, banana slices (eaten for their potassium to help prevent night leg cramps due to the chemical-sapping qualities of a blood pressure medication I take), small glass of tomato juice and toast with butter and jelly.
We were surprised to find out once we boarded an all-day excursion bus outside the ship that our bus was not equipped with even a single restroom. This was a stark surprise given that similar buses we’d been on for excursions arranged by other ship lines did have rather small but adequate restroom facilities tucked away by the exit steps toward the rear of the bus. And this excursion without the facilities had duration of 11 hours. The 50 or more passengers (who paid over 168 Euros, or about $225 in dollars, each for the outing) looked to be in their mid-60s and older, an age when reasonable proximity to facilities is important.
But at least the bus did stop at a gas station a couple of hours into the drive. But that was the only courtesy stop the bus made on this day.
In Florence, our tour guide had to purchase a cup of espresso in a shop so I and another paying passenger from the bus could use the restroom.
Our tour guide was a young man who seemed to be pleasant, by the name of Daniel. He was joined by a young woman who evidently works as a local guide in the town of Florence, who seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the history of the popular tourist destination. She had a wireless microphone and everybody was given earplug-equipped radio receivers. However, the signals wouldn’t work with my hearing aids so I missed out on nearly all the professional guide talk. Not a particularly good way to start a day of sightseeing. In short, while some of the sights were interesting enough, I found the day to be largely a waste of my time and money. We were especially disappointed in the guides’ nonchalance when a reckless and mouthy motorcyclist nearly ran down my wife Betty as she crossed the street in a crowd. The tire left a black mark on her running shoe.
The high temperatures on this late spring day ranged from the upper 50s to the low 60s. I thought the best sights were at the old Santa Croce (Sacred Heart) Church on the main town square in Florence. We were told that Michelangelo, the writer Dante, astronomer Galileo and writer Machiavelli and other Renaissance luminaries are entombed in the church. Another celebrated sight is the Duomo, one of the most celebrated churches in Italy and possibly all of Europe. It took 140 years to build and is a wonderful sight of carved marble statuary.
Our guide told us that Michelangelo’s body was sneaked out of Rome in the dead of the night and moved to Florence by agents of the powerful and wealthy Medici family, which ruled the town for over a century.
About the best thing I can say about our day-long tour was that the price paid by us and others included an absolutely wonderful lunch at a small restaurant, Leo’s, just a few steps off the main square of Florence. The meal consisted of penne pasta served in a heavenly red sauce, sautéed veal served with a topping of a spaghetti-like sauce and a generous slice of creamy cake. Bottles of a superb, local red wine were on the table for guests to pour as they liked.
While I sat on a bench in the sunny square to watch tourists and natives in the bustling, open-air market in central Florence, Betty stopped at one of the sidewalk stalls and paid 130 Euros for a hand-sewn, stylish black leather jacket. Florence and this region of Italy are known throughout the world for leather craftsmanship.
The sights of Florence were interesting. But the detour of another hour’s driving time to the nearby town of Pisa to see its famous Leaning Tower proved to be a complete waste of time, at least for me. It was the middle of a warm afternoon and my body was demanding a bed in a cool room.
We were told by a guide that due to past problems with aggressive natives of Africa selling various fashion knockoffs and assorted junk in Pisa that the bus would park a good ways away from the Leaning Tower and we would have a walk of two miles. I would have thought that the bus would have at least parked by a facility with a restroom. We did drive by a public facility in a huge parking lot, but it was surrounded by the sidewalk vendors.
We were fairly warned by our guide to be wary of the immigrants from Senegal and to take precautions against pickpockets. But the Africans seemed to us to be even pushier and their wares junkier than we had been told to expect. I was surprised that the only police I saw were a good ways from the place where the Senegalese congregated. Maybe there are some international issues there that escaped my suspicious eye developed as head of marketing for an international security services firm.
The distance of our bus’ parking spot so far from the edge of Pisa did little to slow down the Senegalese, who mobbed us like flies on a spilled snow cone at a midway when we walked through “their” area of the parking lot.
One especially aggressive African female selling scarves designed “by Picasso,” issued a stream of angry, unintelligible remarks in my direction when I shooed her away. She also stuck out her tongue at me, which I didn’t interpret as a romantic gesture. A fellow bus passenger, an English-speaking white lady walking with the aid of a cane, told us that a female Gypsy had crammed a street map up into her chest and asked her for directions. Meanwhile, the overbearing female used her free hand to reach beneath the map to try to open the tourist’s “fanny pack” containing valuables. When the older woman jumped back, the presumed Gypsy exclaimed “misunderstanding!, misunderstanding!” and slipped away.
I surmise that the African immigrants know they can get away with such offensive behavior since the local police keep their distance.
What little fitness reserves I had built up by taking afternoon naps were exhausted by the long walk in the sun. We stopped at a coffee shop to use the restroom facilities at Pisa since there were no public facilities in sight for the thousands of tourists.
But at least we got through the “bizarre” bazaar of sidewalk vendors and walked through the main part of Pisa to view the famous Leaning Tower. It really does lean 17 feet from vertical true due to its being built in the 12th Century on sandy soil. A $100-million project a few years ago stabilized the tower to the point that athletic and ambitious visitors can again choose to climb up eight stories of marble steps to the top. I was too tired for the climb – and didn’t want to pay 25 Euros admission to the Tower.
But the Leaning Tower did make for a pretty good picture (see beginning of this travelogue segment on how to access more than 128 photos from our trip). But I’m not sure it was worth all the wear-and-tear of an 11-hour bus ride, two mile walk in the sun and having to deal with so many Senegalese beggars. With or without Pisan Galileo and his experiments on the velocity of falling objects, gravity would still function at Pisa and elsewhere.
Finally, we re-boarded the tour bus after a way-too-long day of seeing the sights of Tuscany. I snoozed during the 30-minute ride back to the boat. After a shower, I enjoyed an excellent grilled hamburger and can of beer delivered to the room and collapsed into bed by 5 p.m. Betty – always venturesome and self-reliant – dined by herself in the ship’s Lido Grill. She enjoyed some freshly made pizza (sounds fitting after spending time at the town of Pisa) and brought some homemade cookies back to our stateroom and me.