Twelve hours after arriving in Pisa, we were up and enjoying our second day in Tuscany, fresh-brewed Italian cappuccino’s in hand. Fear not fellow American’s who rely on the consistency factor of Starbucks, if you order a cappuccino in Italy, you get a cappuccino. In France, not so much. After enjoying an Italian style buffet breakfast at the AC Hotel, complete with salami and cheese, we were off to see historic Pisa in the daylight. We quickly realized how special the night before had been, with the tower all alone, as the morning brought crowds of tourists. Parking was much harder to find and getting a view or a photo of the Leaning Tower without another tourist in it was not possible. But the sun was shining and this is Italy!
The streets of Pisa during the day are the opposite of night. During the day they are bustling with traffic, scooters whizzing by in their fantasy lanes, horns honking, and people in a hurry (only on the road).
Pisa is the first place outside of Boulder, Colorado that I have seen so many people riding non-motorized bikes. True, France is full of cyclists out to conquer the great cols, but very few commute to work for fear of being run over by a French car sporting the scarlet letter A (marking the Amateur driver). Not only did Italy have people riding to work, but plentiful bike lanes welcoming those who dare ride a bike to work. It was very encouraging to see so many people riding the cobbles of Pisa to their workplace.
This was the calm before the storm at Piazza del Duomo. Within 15 minutes this view was filled with thousands of tourists who seemed to beam in via star ships from around the globe. If you visit Pisa, my advice is to get to the attractions in the early morning and come back in the late evening to experience them without a thousand of your closest friends.
In Pisa, you can’t resist the urge to be a total dork. You are likely to see hundreds of people posing in some ridiculous gesture, either pushing over or holding up the famous tower.
A snow globe, Snoopy t-shirt, Italia hoodie, two miniature Leaning Tower’s of Pisa, and 30 euros (Italy is a bargain compared to France) later, we were ready to hit the road to Villa Collina. Although we had seen several of the main tourist attractions, we had only scratched the surface. The reality is that you need to spend several days to a week in Pisa to thoroughly absorb everything. My recommendation if you are visiting Pisa is to give yourself at least two full days to adequately take in the sites, ideally three. If you want to see the inside of many of the buildings you will need to plan ahead and buy tickets in advance. For example, we didn’t get to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa because we didn’t buy tickets in time and the next available opportunity was two hours later, which would not have been a big deal if we were not needing to get on the road.
As we ventured deeper into Toscana she began to reveal herself, one curve after another. Even though we made every effort to progress slowly, our kids didn’t appreciate the curves and a pit stop was needed to calm their upset stomachs. Luckily, Italy has the AutoGrill which has easy off-easy on access from the road way and features an espresso bar that rivals the best American cafe. As our kids were recovering in the parking lot, I quickly joined the seven other Dad’s in line for their quick jolt of Italian roasted goodness and pretended to savor the flavor while my wife dealt with the possibility of children puking.
Parenting tip: don’t get lost in Florence, and if you do, take the round-abouts slower than we did, or suffer the consequences.
Barbara, our Inspirato Destination Concierge had provided detailed directions, complete with photographs of signs and exits, to help guide us from Pisa to Villa Collina. Except for a minor wrong turn and 20 extra roundabouts through Florence, we stayed true to her directions and arrived at Il Campanile shortly after lunch.
We were warmly greeted at Villa Collina by a host of friendly Inspirato employees who helped us with our bags, gave us a tour of the property, and treated us to a light Italian lunch consisting of fresh salads, salami, cheeses, and wines. After some snacks, a quick conversation with Barbara, and a glance at the map, we were ready to venture out to experience more of Tuscany, first stop the historic abbey at San Galgano.
No matter how confident you are in your navigational skills via your GPS device or smart phone, have a real map on hand. Often times there is no cell coverage in parts of Tuscany and the GPS device can send you on roads that look like a smart option, but are windy and narrow.
Just a short 20km away, the beautiful drive to San Galgano took us about 30 minutes from Villa Collina. Along the way we were treated to fields of green grasses, beautiful hillsides covered in oak trees, and Italian villas peaking out of the treetops. The monumental complex of San Galgano is located approximately 30 km to the West of Siena, to the border with the province of Grosseto, between the villages of Monticiano and Chiusdino, in a wild and unspoiled landscape, rich in natural beauty. Two roads of great historical and economic importance pass here, the “Massetana” that connects Siena with the Sea, crossing Massa Marittima and the Metalliferous Hills and the ancient “Maremmana Road” that joins the center of Tuscany with Grosseto.
When we arrived, a tour bus was just leaving and there were only a handful of people left at the abbey, which meant we had the whole place to ourselves. After spending a few euros to enter the buildings, we used the remaining day light hours to admire the architecture and the construction while imagining what it must have been like here 700 years ago.
The incredible story about this place is connected to the history of a warrior turned Saint: San Galgano, who lived here during the 12th century. At some point in his life, he traded worldly pursuits and the violence of knighthood for a religious life in search of redemption. He became a hermit and retreated to the top of the Montesiepi hill. Lacking a cross to pray in front of, he created his own by miraculously burying his sword up to its hilt into a stone, à la King Arthur, but in reverse. After his death, Cistercian monks flocked to his home on pilgrimage and eventually a large Cistercian monastery complex grew up. Today, all you’ll see is the massive, and incredibly impressive ruined abbey, and on a nearby hill, the Chapel of San Galgano with its fascinating dome and sword in the stone.
The Abbey of San Galgano was built in Gothic style between 1218 and 1288 by the Cistercian monks who came from Citeaux (France). It was built in this location because the Cistercian monks liked to build their monasteries close to rivers (here the Merse) where woods, marshlands and plains could easily be cultivated. Some important men formed the monastic community of San Galgano, but first a famine (1329), then the plague (1348), hit the community hard. Afterwards the abbey lands were devastated by mercenary bands and at the end of the 15th century the monks moved to Siena (Palace of San Galgano). In 1786 the bell tower collapsed on the roof of the abbey and in 1789 the church was deconsacrated.
The Chapel (1181-1185) has a round base and was built on the hill where San Galgano (1148-1181) had retired to live as a hermit. At the center of the rock in which San Galgano embedded his own sword. In the XIV century a rectangular Chapel was added and later frescoed by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
We were very fortunate to experience San Galgano at sunset, which allowed me to capture the abbey in some great light.
After the kids had their fill of historical buildings and their mothers history lessons, we noticed a sign to a Wine Bar and followed the trail up the hill, past the Montesiepi Chapel to find a charming cafe and wine bar called the Salendo Bar. The cafe is a quaint place, set high on a hill overlooking the lush valley below and has a small playground for kids. We sipped on wine produced from the vines at San Galgano and enjoyed small plates of cheese and cookies as the sun set on a great day. The photo below was shot from the outside seating at the Salendo Bar.
We wrapped up our second day in Tuscany by returning to Villa Collina before nightfall and enjoyed a cozy dinner in as a family. And then we raced one another to see who could post their pictures to Facebook and Twitter the fastest, thanks to the high-speed wifi connection throughout Villa Collina. What, did you expect we’d just go to bed? Way too many great photos and experiences to share!