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Camilla reports here on her travels by train through Tuscany where fine art, food and wine were very much to the fore!

‘Having lived in the southern hemisphere for the best part of the last decade my appetite for European culture has been left unsatisfied, now that it is right there on my doorstep again it is time to get my fill. With such good airfares to so many European destinations it almost feels like my duty!

Where better to drink it all in than Tuscany? I based myself in a small town called Signa, 77km east of Pisa and 20km west of Florence, conveniently located on the train line between the two cities.

My first port of call was Pisa and predictably the Leaning Tower. I had heard that Pisa was not the most fascinating of places, but had to see for myself. A straightforward train and bus journey got me there in around an hour. The tower is located in the main square and is accompanied by the cathedral to which it is the bell tower, the baptistery and the Camposanto (“Holy Field”) or Monumental Cemetery, as well as the museum.

I must say the Italians have done a great job of organising entry to the attractions with integrated tickets and a time allocated queuing system. For me the highlight was walking up the tower and the strange sensation of going up and down hill whilst spiraling up the stone steps due to the tower’s jaunty angle. A close second was my well timed visit to the Baptistery, which is also on a slight lean. The architecture of the building made the acoustics incredible and I was lucky enough to be inside while there was a demonstration. One lady sang a few notes and as her voice echoed around the room it sounded like a full choir, when I closed my eyes I it was hard to believe the sound could have been made by one person.

That afternoon, refueled by gelato I took a short train journey to the nearby town of Lucca 20km north east of Pisa. Lucca is a charming town surrounded by tree-lined pathways along the tops of 16th and 17th century ramparts and filled with bustling shopping streets selling local pottery, fresh produce and designer boutiques. Dodging the locals on their bikes, or perhaps they were dodging me, I wandered the cobbled paths, which would every now and then open out into a square overlooked by a magnificent Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral or Museum. An alfresco margarita pizza and plenty of red wine gave me time to absorb as much of Lucca’s heartwarming atmosphere as possible. Reluctant to leave it was easy to navigate back to the train station thanks to the surrounding ramparts.

Next on the list was Florence, I had no idea what I was in for! Never mind ‘shopping til you drop’, today I was a tourist til I dropped! I started my visit with a trip to the pharmacy museum on Via Della Scala, on the recommendation of my (occasionally overly) friendly hotel manager Alessandro. The unmarked entrance does not prepare you for the splendor of what is inside. It is what I imagine a traditional perfumery to be, counters covered with labeled bottles of lotions and potions and ceilings painted with elegant frescos. The perfumes came in every scent and could be mixed for the individual, at a price!

I stopped in at the indoor market, every food lover’s dream, to get some supplies, then continued to stroll along the streets of Florence passing the San Lorenzo Church on my way to Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Nothing had quite prepared me for how pretty this building was going to be in the flesh, the pillars looked like candy canes and the multi coloured marble had been so intricately placed together on such an enormous scale, it was mind blowing!

No wonder it took over 143 years to build and it looked by the length of the queue that it would be about my age by the time I got to the front! So I decided to explore a few more of the sights before committing.

Having seen the cathedral up close I hopped on a bus up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for a view across the Arno River and the whole of the city. This was my first view of the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge is still crammed with shops and now tourists. In the heat of the afternoon I meandered down the hillside to the bridge and took an obligatory saunter across it. I then found myself in Piazza della Signoria drinking wine and eating pasta!

Feeling content, aside from my aching feet, I was ready to join a queue! I headed to the Galleria dell Accademia, to queue to see ‘The David’. It did cross my mind, as I waited for over an hour, that I have seen many statues before and was this going to be worth it? It was.

When I entered the room and saw him stood at the far end I instantly thought this was the most beautiful man I have ever seen, perfect in every way! This is accentuated by the incomplete works of Michelangelo which accompany ‘The David’ and appear to be clawing their way out of the blocks of marble they are trapped inside. As the room began to empty I decided to regroup with much needed gelato before my train home.

After a restful day by the pool I was raring to go again. Sienna was next, approximately 90km south of Signa it was just one train change at Empoli to get to there. The streets of Sienna seemed to funnel me towards the Piazza del Campo, the huge central square, famous for The Palio di Siena horse race that is held here twice a year and over looked by the old town hall and tower building. There is a rich feeling of history standing in one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares.

The streets of Sienna are filled with little shops specializing in all kinds of treats, sweet and savory. Resisting temptation I made my way to the cathedral square. First I came across the Battistero (Baptistery) and soon realised the ticket system to see the various buildings and museums was going to be more complicated than I had hoped. You are not able to separate the different attractions, you have to buy a combined ticket for the things you want to see, but figuring out the combo that includes what you want to see is no mean feat! Luckily there is time in the queue to think! Ticket in hand I chose to see the inside of the Cathedral, as I ran out of time for this out in Florence, the Cripta, which was only opened up in 2004, the Battistero, The Facciatone, offering views over the city and Santa Maria della Scalla, originally the civic hospital dedicated largely  to caring for abandoned children, now a museum.

The Cathedral did not disappoint and I was surprised at the way the marble was arranged in black and white stripes throughout the interior. In the Cripta there was an eerie feel to the maze of underground rooms and although the Battistero was well worth a visit, it was not as impressive as the one at Pisa.

To access the Facciatone you must enter through the Museo dell’Opera metropolitan, which is spread over 4 floors. On the first floor the huge circular stained glass window, which should sit above the cathedral doors but has been removed to protect it from the elements, is displayed giving a rare opportunity to get up close to such a great example.

At the top of the museum, through a narrow stone corridor and up two spiral staircases you will find yourself out in the open on the Facciatone, this large façade towers over the Duomo area and offers spectacular panoramic views of the city and Tuscan countryside beyond. I had saved the Santa Maria della Scala until last, big mistake! At first is seems manageable with rooms leading off a corridor in various states of restoration heading to a large room of impressive frescos depicting scenes from the ancient hospital. However, the rest of the museum is a blur and I wish I had more stamina, but it seemed to turn into a labyrinth of rooms, which got more and more dimly lit. Attempting to retrace my steps to find the exit I eventually found myself back out in the light of day. An enormous slice of pizza topped up the blood sugars as I sat in Piazza del Campo watching the shadows grow longer engulfing the square.

A final day of rest allowed me to soak in all I had seen and experienced before my short flight home.