Posts Tagged ‘Meridiana’

Forget Florence, Pick Pisa

June 26, 2008


“She” has been on at me for ages to take her to Italy. Now usually that wouldn’t be a problem, it doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to throw some clothes in a suitcase and head off to the airport. A drop of a hat and you will find me in the departure lounge but Italy is one of those few remaining European countries I have yet to set foot in, that’s excluding a courier job I did once to Turin, but as I never actually left the airport on that occasion I still class myself in that rarest of species, the Italian virgins.


To make matters worse this wasn’t just a trip for two, our new son and his aunt, my sister, would accompany us on this trip. So, in a flash of inspiration I delegated the choice of destination to auntie, bowing to her self-proclaimed far superior expertise – little knowing that aforementioned expertise consisted solely of reading “A room with a view” and a penchant for anti-pasta.


With an unseemly lack of deliberation auntie spake. And so it was that I found myself making travel preparations for Belle Firenze or as you and I know it, Florence.


As our party consisted of one South Londoner and three Brightoneers airport wise there is only one choice and that is Gatwick. With Florence as a destination, airline wise again there is only choice, and that is the Italian based economy outfit Meridiana.


Meridiana have done well with their scheduling. With early morning and late afternoon runway slots secured in both directions business travellers can swoop in and out of Florence whilst the tourists can make the most of both arrival and departure days.

The leaning Tower


Our outbound flight took off on time and landed some 2 hours later. Punctuality being a prerequisite when you have a limited time frame – I can’t fault Meridiana there. However, I do object to not even being offered so much as a gratis cup of coffee or bag of peanuts as some recompense for spending two hours of my life sloughing the skin off my knees against the back of the seat in front of me.


Baggage retrieval at Florence is excruciatingly slow considering the size of the airport, making even the efforts of Heathrow’s newly opened fifth terminal seem speedy in comparison – fortunately the airport itself is only a 20 minute taxi ride from the historical centre of Florence – just long enough for the traveller to appreciate how linguistically advanced Italian taxi drivers are in comparison to our own and also how ordinary much of Florence is architecturally. Florence is certainly no Rome and is up there with the Coventrys and Dresdens of the world when it comes to post war-rebuilding failures.


This impression was reinforced when we arrived at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Minerva, and realised that the Piazza it is situated upon, Di Santa Maria Novella, is, like much of Florence currently undergoing renovation (at time of writing Apr 2008), and resembled more a building site than my expected site of antiquity.

Unlike Helena Bonham Carter’s room, our room at the front of the building did have a view and overlooked all the building works, now normally this would bother me but if you are travelling with a two year old obsessed with diggers, cranes, dumpers and tractors this soon becomes a positive rather than a negative, and as Forster says “I don’t care what I see outside, my vision is within”.


Bags downed we were out of the hotel and off to explore Florence, the Minerva had been chosen for it’s central location, and much if not all of what you would want to see in Florence is easily accessible from the hotel.


Although mum and dad had accepted auntie’s recommendation of Florence it was with some unvoiced reservations that perhaps it wasn’t the most child friendly city. These reservations were quelled by the thought that no child could do anything other than love a country known for it’s pizza and ice-cream. So that said some refreshments had to be first stop.


First stop for us was the Plaza Della Signorina and a chance to admire some of Florence’s better architecture, some great statues (Cellini’s “Perseus holding the head of Medusa” stands out) and enjoy an ice cream.


OK, now I am not going to quibble, “the boy” gets a very nice ice cream, but 10 euros nice? For that I would want it to be served to him by a living incarnation of Michelangelo’s David himself.


So with ice cream dribbling down the boy’s chin at a euro a blob we moved on to explore the city and take in some of Florence’s famed attractions. A job not made any easier by the apparent Florentine decree that a pavement width should be 20 percent narrower than the standard European pushchair median. Next up for us had to be the Ponte Vecchio –it’s Italian for “old bridge” apparently, and amazingly that is exactly what it is. The Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno River that runs through the heart of Florence, and has done so since the twelfth century. The original bridge has been rebuilt several times throughout history but was the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the retreating Germans during the final stages of the Second World War.


Originally the bridge was a home to the local greengrocers, butchers and bakers and the like, but these were replaced by royal decree by jewellers and more latterly souvenir sellers. The term bankruptcy is supposed to have originated on the Ponte Vecchio so possibly they were selling extortionately priced ice cream in Florence as far back as the 13th century.


With the early Spring weather taking a turn for the wetter and someone’s teatime looming we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. I also wanted to make a phone call to my financial advisor regarding the possibility of a cash advance for a Margherita pizza that had earlier caught my eye. I also wanted to speak to the reception staff regarding train times to Pisa, which was to be our destination the following day.


The following day saw us up early for an excellent hotel breakfast prior to departure for the train station, which is almost adjacent to Santa Maria Novella and shares the same name. The previous day’s mood was also lightened by the obvious adoration of the hotel staff for our son Charlie. In fact I felt as if I had fallen into an outtake of The Italian Job as Italian accented versions of his name echoed around the breakfast room. The old adage remains true “if the kids are happy so are the parents” and things seemed to bode well for the day’s activities.


Now I have never tried to purchase a train ticket at a station in England speaking only Italian but the ease with which the transaction was competed in English in Italy makes me sure it would not go as smoothly, and some 15 minutes after finishing breakfast we were comfortably ensconced aboard our train for the 89 kilometre, 1 hour journey time, second class fare approx. 2 ice creams.


Giardino di Boboli


Now this is where my title for this piece should really start to make some sense. The journey time between the two cities is inconsequential and is less than a lot of people’s daily commute. And what a contrast between the two cities. Where Florence’s streets are too narrow to comfortably manoeuvre a pushchair Pisa’s streets resemble more a Parisian boulevard. Pisa is the smaller of the two cities and yet you feel you have more space to enjoy. The roads aren’t so busy, in fact for most of the walk from the train station to Piazza del Duomo – the main historic centre, we actually eschewed the spacious pavements and sauntered down the middle of the road, hardly realising it wasn’t actually a pedestrian’s area.



It is a straight line from the train station to the Piazza del Duomo but it is well worth taking a deliberate detour, we did and found not only the obligatory Irish Pub but also street food markets, crammed with Italian sausage, tomatoes and fresh artichokes which, for me, really gave me the sense for the first time of being in the real Italy, whereas wandering Florence’s streets I just felt like I was a consumer in what could have been any one of so many European cities.


Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo one immediately looks for the Leaning Tower, and it is easy to miss the fact that the Piazza houses 3 other great monuments. As well as the tower the Piazza is home to: the Pisa cathedral, the baptistery, and the cemetery – all set out on a sward of manicured lawn.


My favourite was the cemetery, but then my wife believes we travel the world just to trawl around other countries’ burial places. Legend has it the Pisa cemetery was created in the 13th century to hold tonnes of soil brought back from the Holy Land, specifically the Calvary Mount, where Christ was supposedly crucified. Despite losing its roof and suffering fire damage during the Second World War many would have you believe this is one of the most beautiful cemeteries anywhere in the world.


We didn’t bother to enter the baptistery despite its claim to be the largest in Italy. Those who do visit recommend going first thing in the morning to really appreciate the amazing acoustics of the place.


We ventured off the piazza to grab a cold lunch which we then took back to eat at the foot of the famous tower, which we followed up with Pisa’s version of ice cream – equally good and like everything else here half the price of it’s Florentine counterpart. We could easily have killed more time just people watching – Pisa seems to be the world capital for humorous photo taking, but tore ourselves away to go and visit Pisa’s botanic gardens. A stone’s throw from the top of the tower these gardens were established in the 15th century and are supposedly the oldest in all of Europe. The gardens are home to species from all over the world and although Pisa isn’t a hectic place if you wanted room to unwind and grab a quiet moment here’s the place. We settled on just disturbing the peace of others and let “the boy” off the leash for an hour or so before making our way back to the train station and reluctantly taking the short journey home.


For our final day in Florence we had decided to do the art thing and planned an early morning visit to the Uffizi Gallery. The major drawback of doing this is the length of the queue to get in but someone had put me onto an advance ticket-booking site,, which cut our queuing down to minutes rather than hours. The gallery is made up of approx 40 rooms and has works of art by Michelangelo, Raphael and all the other ninja turtles.


For our last afternoon we had planned to head North across town to the Galleria dell’Accademia which houses the world-renowned sculpture of David prior to his battle with Goliath by Michelangelo. However, as the Sun was shining we decided instead to go South of the Arno River and let “the boy” explore the Giardino di Boboli. These are the largest gardens in Florence and are supposed to have inspired those of Versailles. The gardens are pleasant enough for a stroll, with copies of some of Michelangelo’s sculptures dotted around to break up the topiary. There is an admission fee of half an ice cream but personally I preferred the Pisa ones which also had the benefit of being free of charge.


Finally, tired and weary, it was time to head back to the hotel one last time to say our goodbyes, collect our luggage and meet our taxi taking us back to the airport. As we waited in the hotel lobby I took advantage of their wi-fi connection and my unexpired password. A brief search of the flight comparison websites showed a discrepancy between fares from Gatwick to Pisa and Florence. My random summary showed no frills Meridiana had availability for an average of £128, but no peanuts. British Airways had flights, with peanuts, to Pisa, for an average of £101. Sufficient difference for the train fare between the two. Take my advice if you are heading down this way forget Florence and pick Pisa.