Italy '97
Florence, Pisa, Siena, and Milan

One of the best places to view Florence is from the Piazza Michelangelo located on one of the hills high above the city. In the center of the piazza is a copy of the David, but no one comes to see it. The whole area is a big parking lot with gelati and souvenir stands placed there to serve the thousands of tourists who stop every day to see the city laid out below. Bus 13 from the Central Station takes the tourists to Piazza Michelangelo about every 20 to 30 minutes all day long.

Piazza Michelangelo
The David

The last time that Brenda and I had visited Florence together was on our first Eurail trip more than ten years ago. At that time, in the summer of 1985, Florence was hot and extremely crowded, and the administration of the city museums seemed to be at random. Much of what we wanted to see was covered for repairs, and we had been caught in a "lightning" rail workers strike. We did not encounter many of the same unpleasantries on this trip, but the museum administration is little improved. To see the David (left) we had to make a guess at which of its posted hours the Accademia might choose to open, and some of the other museums were even worse! Florence has four or five of the best museums in the world, and they are all listed as being open during the same limited number of hours during the day. Then, to make matters worse, on all three days that we were there, at least two of the museums had signs limiting the hours even more. We got to see the Bargello by pure luck: we happened to go during the one hour (12:30-1:30) that it was opened.

The Ponte Vecchio is Florence's most famous bridge and one of the most famous in the entire world. It is the only one of Florence's bridges that was not destroyed by the Nazi occupiers when they fled during World War II. A bridge on this site probably existed during the time of the Roman Empire, but the bridge as it exists today was built in 1345. The goldsmith shops line both sides of the street over the bridge.

Ponte Vecchio
The Leaning Tower

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is probably among the ten most recognizable tourist sites in the entire world. But upon viewing the Campo dei Miracoli ("The Field of Miracles") with the tower, the Duomo, and the Baptistry for the first time, the tourist will probably be struck by the fact that this would be a pretty remarkable place even if the tower had never leaned. At the time of this visit, the tower was closed to climbers, and work was continuing in an effort to prevent it from leaning further (or even falling).

If you're looking for the world's largest collection of plaster towers, just walk by the hundreds of souvenir stands that surround the piazza. But if you just have an hour or two for sightseeing, buy the combination ticket and head to the Duomo and to the Baptistry.

The city of Pisa makes it easy for the rail traveler to reach the sights. Bus #1 picks you up in front of the station and deposits you just a few hundred feet from the tower itself.

Some tour guides call Siena's amphitheater of a piazza, the Campo (literally "the Field"), the greatest in all of Italy. It has long been the center of civic life in the city, and each year it serves as the racetrack for the famous Palio. More than a dozen streets lead off the Campo and exploring all of them can make an interesting vacation. Siena's cathedral is only a short walk away and should be the focus for any visitor who is only passing through for a few hours.

Siena's Campo
Galleria in Milan

Perhaps we would not have stayed in Milan at all except that it was easier to get to Malpensa Airport from the train station in downtown Milan than from some of the towns located near the airport itself. We had traveled through Milan on three or four different occasions, but we see Milan very much the way we see Frankfurt--a big city so caught up in international commerce that it could actually be plopped down anywhere in the world and exist just as well.

We did enjoy our visit downtown and the chance to see the cathedral and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (left). Yes, we found the mosaic of Taurus and stood in the designated spot for good luck.

In walking around Milan, we also spotted more groups of pickpockets at work than we had seen in the last ten years. The police force in Milan does a good job of protecting the tourists from them, but they seem to pop up without warning. If you plan to window shop, keep a hand on your purse or wallet.

We found La Scala to be much smaller than what we had imagined. We went in for a visit to the small but interesting Museum of Opera. We thought we would be disappointed and not have a chance to see the interior of La Scala (the cast was rehearsing for "Siegfried"), but during one of their breaks, we were able to have a quick visit.

A final word about Malpensa Airport: The airport is much smaller than we thought it would be, and it's remarkably easy to use.


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