Travelogue: Tuscany Pt.1 (Pisa)

A bit of an off-topic series here, as I’ve just been to Italy for the first time. I’ve been keeping a travel diary for some years where I note what I experienced and useful bits of info, as well as scrapbook-type things like entrance tickets, travel tickets and business cards from places I liked. It’s both a memory book (volume 2 now) and a reference book if I go back to the same place in the future.

Anyway we had so many experiences we wanted to pass on from this trip that mum and I both decided we would write blogs about it, so maybe other people researching similar trips will find the info useful.

There’ll be a second post on the latter part of our trip (mostly Florence) and that will also have some fashion content, but this one is mostly travel and culture!

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Hotel

We stayed at the Hotel Abitalia Tower Plaza, which is a 5* resort hotel with pool and great facilities. It’s very modern and stylish, and the staff were on the whole quite pleasant and helpful.
This was a last minute choice – booked on Friday evening for a Sunday arrival, but as their Tripadvisor reviews say and as we came to discover, this is not the best hotel if you’re on foot. There is only one way into the city centre, it’s about a 25min walk along a busy road, pavements are intermittent and you have to cope with a busy crossroad lacking pedestrian crossing, and a long, dark underpass to get past a railway line.
We enjoyed a lovely afternoon tanning and relaxing poolside with ambient music and a beach-bar style atmosphere, but couldn’t face making the journey into town for dinner, all the more so because we were told there was a massive festival in Pisa that night and there would be no taxis available past 8pm. In the end we had a nice meal in the hotel restaurant but felt a bit captive as the area around is all residential.
Checkout was no problem but unfortunately it later transpired we might have had a light fingered maid, as some toiletries and jewellery were missing, though we couldn’t be sure it had happened there.

Verdict: Great if you’ve hired a car, not if on foot. Otherwise lovely facilities & nice hotel to stay at.

IT10AMJ Pisa Centrale Train Station & Bus, Italy 2010

Getting About
Pisa is a very small city so you can easily walk most places, however there do also seem to be copious bus services running throughout the city. That is, except when there’s a festival. We had planned to get a CitySightseeing tour bus from a stop near the hotel, but soon realized their map had a bit of poetic license and it was much much further away. All was not lost, we thought, there was a regular bus stop right outside the hotel. However, it turned out to be a religious holiday and therefore we waited over an hour for a bus to get back into town.

At that point we wanted to ditch our small suitcases so we checked them in at the luggage store at the train station. This was great, €8 for two cases and they take a photocopy of your passport so when you bring back the ticket stub to collect the luggage, you also have to match up to the passport on the luggage. They do also give you this photocopy so they don’t retain any of your ID info. Pisa train station is a bit of a maze – the luggage store is to the far left hand corner as you face the front of the station, through a little turnstile and to the left again.

We were still hoping to pick up the CitySightseeing bus at the station, to get a tour of the main sights. However, we really struggled to find the stop as there was absolutely no signage for them, and we waited in the station square an hour to no avail. Their leaflet just gives an hourly cycle and no times for when they arrive at each stop, which is odd for a hop-on hop-off service. Eventually we rang them, but they didn’t answer. A while later we got a text to say they were in a meeting and in any case the tours weren’t running because of the public holiday, but on their website they say they run every day and make no mention of exceptions for public holidays. I’ve been on this company’s tours in other cities and they’re usually great, but in Pisa they seem to be hopeless.

Other than this the trains and buses are much the same as elsewhere in Europe; train tickets can be bought at the station & bus tickets on the bus or from kiosks, both need to be validated prior to traveling (usually on train platforms or in the bus you board). It costs €1.50 for a single ticket from Pisa Airport to Pisa Centrale and it takes about 5mins, and unlike most airport train stations the platform is right outside the terminal rather than miles away.

Verdict: Travel is generally cheap and straightforward as per usual in mainland Europe, just watch out for those public holidays!

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Tourism

Unusually the tourist information office isn’t in the station but a few streets away, tucked into an old building on a square. The girls in there were pretty useless, not knowing much and pretty much just there to be human leaflet dispensers.
We had been to Piazza del Duomo the day before but this time sans baggage decided to climb the tower. This costs €18 so it is quite pricey and overall I was quite disappointed. The tickets are timed and you have to check your handbag (even the smallest) into lockers beforehand. Mostly the experience was ruined by the exceptionally rude staff in the tower. The woman at the base was barking at everyone to sit down, even though this quite clearly would have meant sitting on someone else’s lap, then rattled off a brief spiel about the tower in mixed Italian and English that I honestly caught about 4 words of, so I didn’t learn anything about it. After this was the climb up the tower, a wierd experience as halfway round you stop climbing and it feels as though you are walking upstairs but downhill. At the top there are good views over the city and mountains beyond, but the most interesting feature in the scene is the one you’re standing in! The safety fencing prevents any really great photos, and there was an oaf of a staff member grunting and herding you round and insisting you go up to the higher level, with no regard for how uncomfortable you might have felt at that height or at his oppressive physical shooing. Another couple were really struggling and the staff had no regard for the fact they might actually have been ill. Consequently we made a complaint to the box office staff who were very concerned and agreed it was unacceptable, and it turned out a similar complaint was made the day before. No offer of a refund though!

Verdict: You can see Pisa in less than a day – stay somewhere else and take a half day trip on the train. There are plenty of beautiful and funny photo ops in the main square, and don’t bother going up the tower unless you can get a deal or reduced price ticket, or don’t mind risking disappointment.

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