Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pisa and Portovenere

We are at the Riviera Blu, a very nice beach hotel on the main road of Tirennia about 25 minutes from Pisa. It reminds us of Jesolo outside Venice. The hotel is actually across the street from the beach, and given the few guests last night we got the two best rooms in the hotel, facing the beach, one on either side of the central staircase above the front door. It is a very pretty morning, in fact what looks like a perfect Italian Riviera morning, with bright sun and blue, blue sky.

I’m in the breakfast room, sitting at the wrong table after failing to notice the nice ceramic tee-pee place markers with room numbers indicating where we are to sit. This not understanding the seating arrangement for these included breakfasts is a recurring problem with me. I am not sure why, but perhaps it is that each hotel in each country does it their own way and I am just not interested in figuring it out over and over again at my age when all I want to do is have a cup of coffee in peace while I write in my journal. Oh well.

This morning’s plan is a hotel provided wake-up call to Edward to meet me at 7:45 am for breakfast in anticipation of an 8:30 “wheels-up” to Pisa. Alicia is good in the morning, Kat will trade sleep for breakfast any day, so she is not expected. Since it is now 7:55 and neither Edward nor Alicia have appeared, the plan has obviously gone awry.

Being on vacation I sauntered, rather than walked, over to the front desk to attempt to have the clerk call Ed’s room. My limited Italian and his inability to divine the central theme of my international sign language resulted in a climb (no elevator) back to our room to call their room, a scant 10 feet away. It appears our barkeep at the front desk failed in the wake up call routine as well. Situation remedied, somehow these two young people, plus my wife were loading our suitcases into the back of our wagon right at 8:30. They are all wonderful I have decided.

The drive to Pisa was shorter than expected, and it appeared we did indeed beat the crowds. Having been there before Kat and I were efficient in finding the quickly filling municipal parking lot. You buy a token from the attendant which you use to exit the lot through a mechanical arm device, that unlike La Storta seemed to be working. It is probably critical that you don’t lose the token.

We checked the picturesque and mostly useless town map on the wall and crossed the street to enter one of the most beautiful settings in Europe (IMHO). The Square of Miracles seems perfectly proportioned and to me the Baptistery alone is worth the journey. The newlyweds did the posing bit and I marveled at the setting. Outside the large portal gate a continuous flow of busses started disgorging hoards of tourists and we beat feet out of there ½ hour after we arrived. We were all satisfied and grateful for the experience.

Heading back to the parking lot we retrieved our car, and I inserted the little plastic token (which I had been white-knuckling for the previous hour) into the machine and out we drove. We checked our map and decided that since we had spent so little time in Pisa, we would enjoy a terrifying ride up a steep mountain in the rain to see some rocks. So up, up and away, we went, right through a soggy downtown Carrera, past all the stone cutters (some working on fantastic marble sculptures in their work yards) traveling this narrow, many switchback-ed road, always keeping our eyes out for the “Caves de Marmot” signs. We passed a number of working quarries, and the higher we got the easier it was to identify the white marble chips that stream down the sides of the mountains looking from below like snow.
One can only imagine Michelangelo scouring the hills, marking his M on the side of the perfect marble block (How did he ever find a block large enough to house the David?) We stopped at one of the many shops along the road and bought a small red marble heart while Edward and Alicia bought a beautiful vase and some wine stoppers.

Well, we left the perfect blue-sky Riviera day behind us as we made our way northward toward Portovenere, a great place, beautiful and windy. What a pleasure to find a nice space for the car down by the park, and walk around the bend to the harbor. The pictures don’t do justice to the colors on the buildings and the azure water with the boats bobbing. One of the boats failed to bob apparently and was sitting with water up to it’s gunwales, or whatever they are called, surrounded by a number of EPA types surrounding it with a boom system in a Chinese fire drill sort of way. Ed was fascinated by the whole process and spent most of the time, it seemed, wishing he could offer some advice. The other 3 of us headed toward the church at the end of the promontory.

The views are magnificent with the beautiful water and rough rocks at Byron’s Grotto. The wind was brisk, but the air had some warmth to it and we could taste salt in the air. A fantastic setting.

We headed down from the church and about half way along rainbow row we noticed a steep (very steep) set of stairs between two of the buildings. Intrepid travelers that we are a staircase is meant for climbing and at the top we discovered the high street in which there were a number of interesting shops (olive oil, souvenir, etc.) and one great little pizza place called La Pizzaccia where we relaxed and enjoyed a delicious lunch.

After lunch Kat went off exploring on her own for a bit while we did what we do best. (As I recall we were pondering whether or not we should get up and look for a pastry or perhaps an ice cream shop, as we hadn't eaten in at least 15 minutes. We did neither.)

The rain stayed with us the rest of the way up the coast toward France, and we made a feeble attempt to drive through downtown Monaco. There was little to see, it was very congested, however the Casino de Paris is worth the ride. We made our way to our hotel (L’Albatros – hope that’s not an omen) which is located in a very nice residential area of Mouans Sartoux. The homes are large by French standards and have tall fences and manicured landscaping.

It had been a long tiring day with lots of driving but we were all hungry and rather than risk the hotel food we decided to be adventurous. The result was an excellent meal at a Cambodian restaurant (our first: Cambodgiana just down the street past what we imagined was a large barking dog behind a fence. We intended to have fish anyway.

We returned to our hotel and Kat FINALLY got to TALK to her mother who is doing pretty well, in good spirits and has accommodations for the next couple of weeks settled. So that is good. Tomorrow is Grasse and Fragonard then to return the car. We expect that to be a nightmare.

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