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Cruise Diary: Discovering the Wonders of Pisa and Florence, Italy

HAL guest George Labecki and his family sailed aboard Nieuw Amsterdam’s Mediterranean Tapestry cruise throughout Europe this past July and documented his experience in a journal. Below is the first entry from his visit to Pisa and Florence. Enjoy!

July 8th
Beginning the Weave: Pisa and Florence, Italy

The face of Tuscany has a thousand eyes, and all the irises are sunflowers. Driving along Tuscany, you see acre after acre of sunflowers winking at you and calling you with their siren song to come and visit, come and stay. Tuscany was where we spent the day today. We rose at 5:45 for a shower and a quick breakfast on the Lido deck before we made our way to the lounge to be assigned a bus for the day. Blue 24 was the sticker we wore. The only thing more blue was the sky today as we made our way first to Pisa and then to Florence.

We were told by many that Pisa was a tourist trap and that we had to go there because it’s one of the things that you “have to do.” Maybe it’s because we were there on a Sunday; maybe it was some factor that we didn’t understand, but fortunately for us, on this day Pisa was a quiet and remarkable place. Sure, we were greeted by dozens of people trying to sell us a real Rolex for the remarkable price of 5 Euros, but those guys are everywhere, and as long as you didn’t make eye contact, they left you alone. We spent the morning taking amazing photographs made amazing if only for the fact that we were standing in the place we had all read about in our schoolbooks. But when the lesson ceases to be a lesson and becomes real, that’s when you have the “Aha” moment. That was us today.

We took the mandatory picture of Nick seeming to hold up the tower. We took a picture of him holding up a “Terrible Towel.” We ran into a couple from Pittsburgh whom we loaned the towel to so that they could make his mother smile. Steeler Nation was happy to oblige. But what we really did was amble about that miraculous place and just enjoy the juxtaposition of so many diverse places of faith, all different in appearance, all in a relatively small area. I felt the same feeling that I felt at Stonehenge. Maybe Pisa is a Catholic Stonehenge. But it is definitely a place of extreme feeling.

From there we took the hour plus drive through Tuscany. We saw sights right out of Under the Tuscan Sun. There were sharp hills winding down from the mountains. There were large orange or yellow villas on the hilltops. Those villas were surrounded by rows of grapevines. There were Pinion trees that you see in the social studies books. And of course there were sunflowers everywhere. Crayola needs a box of colors specific to Tuscany.

We arrived late morning to Florence, and Florence is a huge city of some 600,000 people, but when wandering around the twisting medieval streets, Florence becomes a city of a handful of people in your view. Our tour director gave us time to shop, and surprisingly for a Catholic country, many shops were open. But we took the added free hour to explore. We walked along the Arno River, taking pictures, and we found ourselves at the Ponte Vecchio, that bridge of shops across the river, that bridge that is twice as old as our country. We wound around in front of the Museum and looked at the copy of the statue of David. The original sits in the museum now, and the museum takes three hours to visit. David sat outside and weathered for 350 years before the Florentines moved it in and replaced it with a copy. But the copy is amazing in itself, and it sits there with originals of Neptune, Perseus, and many more ancient heroes.

Next we went to lunch in an old palace. The food was quite good, but we neglected to tell our son Nick that in Italy, meals have a pasta starter. So of course he ate a full portion of pasta; in fact, he had seconds on pasta and more than a few pieces of bread. He went to the bathroom, and when he came back I told him he was just in time for the main course. His eyes popped, but he hung in there for a main course of pork roast with wine sauce and quartered potatoes. It was a very nice lunch. We walked up to and around the Duomo, the heart of the great cathedral in Florence. We took pictures of Ghiberti’s golden doors right across from the main entrance. Nick thought the main entrance with its ornate carvings of saints and apostles to be the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

But the most interesting part of the day came when Nick decided that the one thing that he wanted from Italy was a cross. In fact, at lunch he told me that he wanted to get “something iconic: a simple, gold cross.” And so that’s what we purchased. Lee Ann had seen a local jeweler who had several trays of crosses, so that’s where we went. Nick found a large, simple gold cross that he loved. A Canadian woman who was shopping there told him that he had good taste, and that sealed the deal. The fact that the young woman who was working there was the owner’s totally hot, totally Italian daughter was just a little icing on the gelato. Thank goodness that Nick is fifteen and fit. We wanted pictures of the Duomo from above, and the only way that you can get those is by climbing Giotto’s tower, and that was so not happening with Lee Ann and me. We bribed Nick with a second lemon gelato, paid for his entrance, and he was off.

The guard told me that it would take Nick at least 30 minutes to do the climb. That was going to cut it really tightly for us as far as getting to the bus, but he was gone, so Lee Ann and I decided to have a gelato and a Coke ourselves. Fifteen minutes later a sweaty Nick came out the door. He said that it was tiring, but he was glad he did it. He thought he got some great pictures, and when we got back to the suite and loaded them on the computer, he was right. It was fifteen minutes and 6 Euros well spent. Then it was back on the bus for the drive back to the ship. The sunflowers wink and try and call you back, but it’s too late. You ignore the siren and move on to the next adventure.

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