Early Bird

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I am not naturally an early bird. However, I do like getting up early. If I can drag myself out of bed, I find those early hours much more productive. I particularly like getting up early when I’m travelling. It means I get to visit places when they’re nice and quiet (I don’t like crowds), and I get to take people-free photos like the one of the leaning tower of Pisa above 🙂

Click here if you’d like to join in with this week’s photo challenge.

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New

Seeing as one of my personal goals is to visit at least one new place and try one new activity every year, I thought this week’s photo challenge would be a good opportunity to look back at the new places I’ve visited and the activities I’ve tried since starting this blog.

My trip to Pisa was as amazing cultural experience…

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Pottery is something that I’ve always wanted to try, and I seemed to always just miss out on the opportunity until I enrolled on the one day workshop at the Howardian Centre in Cardiff…

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Sleeping ‘rough’ in St Davids 2 car park in Cardiff as part of the Sleep Easy Challenge helped to raise awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness. We also raised enough money to keep an emergency room open at the YMCA hostel. Click the link to see an updated comment from Mandy Caddy about this year’s event and how you can get involved…

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Taking part in the Cardiff Photo Marathon saw 400 of us running around the city like mad people for 12 hours, desperately trying to find our next shot. I was exhausted by the time I handed in my memory card, but it was a great experience…DSC_0032

I volunteered at an eco-campsite in Anglesey, North Wales for a week. I later found out from my mum that this was possibly not my first time visiting Anglesey, although if I have been before it was when I was a baby and I don’t remember it…DSC_0085

I’ve visited London lots of times, but every time I go there I found another part of the huge city that I haven’t explored before…DSC_0202

I decided to visit Boulogne-sur-mer, France because it is accessible by bus from Cardiff. I love that I live in Wales, yet I can be in a foreign country with a totally different culture within a day…DSC_0108

The high ropes course at Go Ape is not something I would have signed up for before, but I agreed to try it as part of a friend’s hen weekend. Even though I’m petrified of heights, I conquered my fear and completed the whole course…PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Completing my first 5k was a reminder to myself of what I can achieve…IMG_0289

There are some new activities that I’m not very good at, and some that I just plain suck at. Archery is one of those activities…DSC_0325

New places that involve snow I can ski on are always my favourite. In January 2014 I went to Pila, Italy (not to be confused with Pisa, see above) with my parents and their friend…

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My initial reason for visiting Iceland was to see the Northern Lights, but I discovered so much more whilst I was there. I can’t wait to go back some day and explore more of the island…DSC_0236

I love being an aunty, and getting to try new activities with my nephew, nieces and godchildren make them even more special. I hadn’t planned to go mountain carting, my niece and nephew chose the activity and I’m so glad they did…DSC_0680

Learning to scythe was also a skill I never thought I’d acquire, until my volunteer work at the community garden led me to Phil the scythe master…DSC_0925This post is part of the Photo Challenge ‘New’. Click here to see more entries and a photo of a really cute baby.

Travel theme: Statues

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When I read that Ailsa had chosen Statues as her travel theme this week, I was instantly reminded of these interesting folk that I met in Pisa, Italy a couple of years ago. They are somewhat overshadowed by the famous leaning tower, in whose shadow they live, but I think still impressive none the less.

Click here to see other entries from the travel theme.

Travel theme: Tilted

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There was only one subject I could use for this week’s travel theme. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Thanks for bringing back fond memories of my trip to Pisa last year, Ailsa.

Click here to see more tilted entries.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

As I can’t read Italian, all the words in this photo are foreign to me. No matter where you are in the world, though, signs and symbols will tell you all you need to know. The green man lets me know it’s safe(r than average to cross the road – in Italy the green man doesn’t necessarily mean that the traffic has to stop) and the pictures on the signs direct me to the tourist attractions.

Book Swap – An Ingenious Idea

On my recent trip to Italy, I stayed at Hostel Pisa. Although the hostel had perfectly adequate facilities and friendly, helpful staff, there was one thing that was noticeable for it’s absence. Apart from a few books left at reception, which I don’t think there were two of in the same language, there was no book swap.

One of the things I like most about staying at a hotel or hostel is discovering the book swap. It’s such a simple idea, but one that works so well. When you’re done with your book, you simply leave it for someone else and select another one. Although I didn’t actually require the services of the book swap on this trip (before I left Innsbruck my brother had loaded me up with enough English books to last me a year) I still missed sifting through the worn books to find hidden treasures.

I always like to imagine the journey that the books themselves must have been on, passing from traveller to traveller and book swap to book swap as they make their way around the planet. Sometimes you find clues left in the books as to where they might have been. Once, whilst travelling on the east coast of America, I picked up a book with a bookmark from San Francisco in it. Had this book come from San Francisco? Was it simply the bookmark that had made the long journey across the country? Who knows?

The more I thought about the books and their journeys, the more the idea fascinated me. I could pick up a book that I’d already handled five years ago in another country and not know it. That’s why I now leave my mark in every book I read (that’s not a library book, owned by someone or otherwise disrespectful to write in of course). In the bottom corner of the inside back cover, I leave my little juggler-man symbol:

I’ve also started to write where I was when I finished the book and the date. My hope is that, one day, I will pick up a book and find my mark already there. Or that other people will join in with my game and leave their own personal signatures in the back of books. Together, we could help the books to tell their travel stories.

 

Italian Street Art

During my recent trip to Italy, one thing I noticed in abundance everywhere I went was the amount of really good street art. It was painted on the walls of subways, train stations, on the sides of the trains themselves, on temporary walls to hide building sites. Basically, anywhere that there was space that wasn’t already being used.

I know a lot of people just see street art as vandalism, but my personal opinion is that, when it’s done properly, it’s beautiful. Here are some photos I took whilst wandering around Italy.

I also really like the design of this building – I assume it’s supposed to echo the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is just a couple of miles away

Pisa Trip Day 4

For my last day in Italy, I decided to stay in Pisa and take it easy. I knew I had a long journey ahead of me in the evening to get home, so I didn’t want to walk too far that day. I opted for a stroll along the side of the river Arno, a great opportunity to take even more pictures of the Pisan architecture.

The banks of the river Arno

The Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, which sits on the banks of the river, is home to an impressive collection of Medieval art, including bacini ceramici (decorated bowls) and polyptychs (a particular type of painted altarpiece). The building itself is part of an ancient Benedictine nunnery founded in the 11th century and named after Saint Matthew. The museum artefacts almost seem lost in the vast space in which they are housed. The building is incredible. Very little has been done to renovate it, it’s like someone has simply placed some pieces of art in an abandoned church. It felt a bit eerie when I first walked in, especially since I was the only person there, but then I began to appreciate the beauty of the setting. I was actually a little upset when two other visitors entered and disturbed my peace and quiet. There are huge areas of the building that still aren’t used for anything, just void spaces. Unlike the other museums that I had visited in Pisa, this one provided no signage to direct you to the exhibits or to even tell you which rooms were empty and which contained art. You’re left to wander round and work it out for yourself. Whereas this system would cause utter chaos in one of the busy Piazza dei Miracoli museums, here as the Museo Nazional di San Matteo it seemed rather apt. Just like the artwork that it houses, you fell like you’ve suddenly just found yourself in this grand building.

Looking at the exterior of the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, you’d be forgiven for not believing that it contains an impressive array of art housed in huge, open spaces

I’d hoped to also walk up to the top of Torre Guelfa on my last day in Pisa. Built in the 15th century, the tower was completely destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt in 1956, and the views from the top of its 200 steps have been described as ‘enchanting’. Unfortunately, though, it turned out the tower wasn’t open whilst I was there. I think I need to visit Pisa earlier in the season so I don’t miss so much! I did manage to take lots of photos of the tower, however.

Torre Guelfa
The buildings surrounding the Torre Guelfa look really interesting, I hope I get to explore them one day

My last views of Pisa were doing something that I have never done before, anywhere in the world that I have visited. I walked to the airport. Yes, believe it or not, the airport was only a twenty minute (I could have done it in ten without my backpack) walk from my hostel. It was actually quicker to walk straight there than to walk to the station and catch the train. When I first read that my hostel was a ten minute walk from the airport, I thought it must have been a misprint. There was no mistake, though, and I enjoyed a leisurely stroll on a warm October evening. Definitely one of the more relaxed ways that I’ve ended a trip.

 

 

 

Pisa Trip Day 1 – Piazza Dei Miracoli

In a bid to get some good photos of the main tourist attractions of Pisa with as few people in them as possible, I rose early on my first day and headed for Piazza dei Miracoli. Neither of the two maps that I had picked up were much good, and after wandering through narrow streets lined with tall, multi-storey traditional Italian homes and businesses, I arrived in the Piazza from a totally different direction than the one I had intended. Whilst trying to locate any landmark on my map, I’d managed to walk past the Leaning Tower twice without even noticing it.

My first view of the Leaning Tower, after I’d walked past it twice!

It was 9am and the stalls that depend on the tourism were starting to come to life. Although there were already a few people milling around, my plan had worked and I was able to capture some shots without twenty people in the foreground, posing for other photographers, pretending to push the Leaning Tower over or hold it up.

All the guidebooks advise, nay insist, that you book your Leaning Tower ticket in advance to avoid disappointment. With this in mind, I approached the ticket office at 9.15am, and the lady there told me I could take the 9.30am tour. Maybe it’s not always that busy, then. I also bought a combined ticket for the Piazza’s other attractions – the Cathedral (Duomo), Baptistry, Camposanto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie.

Like all major landmarks that I’d seen on TV prior to seeing them in real life, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower isn’t as big as I’d expected it to be. Access to the tower is by guided tour only, and you have to leave all bags (except cameras) in a locker at the bottom. When you’re climbing the tower, the only things you want to be worried about holding on to are yourself and your camera!

The Piazza as a whole is managed by its staff with almost military precision. All the people who work there, from the ticket sellers to the guides and the people who scan tickets all day are very helpful and informative. They do not betray the fact that they’ve been answering the same questions day in, day out all year. They are not particularly the friendliest people I’ve encountered at such a place, but when visiting in October I appreciate it’s the end of a very long and very busy season for them.

Although the Leaning Tower has acquired its nickname for obvious reasons, the tower is actually the campanile (or bell tower) of the cathedral. Building of the tower commenced in 1173 and occurred in three stages across 344 years. No-one is sure who the original architect was, but considering that it started to lean soon after construction began and was noticeable once 3 levels were completed, you can’t blame the architect for not owning up to this one. The tower leans because of the soft foundation on which it stands, although in recent years it has been straightened up considerably. There have been a few attempts over the years to stop the tower from continuing to lean for fear it might fall over completely. I like the ingenuity of the team working under the architect Giovanni di Simone in 1272. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, his engineers built some of the upper floors with one side taller than the other. So now, not only does the tower still lean, but it is actually curved. Between 1990 and  2001 the tower was closed to the public for building work including earth removal, a steel frame and an almost 900 ton counterweight. The experts say it is now good for another 300 years.

There are many fantastic stories that surround the tower. One of my favourites is that During World War II, the Allies discovered that the Germans were using the tower as an observation post. A US Army sergeant sent to confirm the presence of German troops in the tower was so impressed by the beauty of the cathedral and its campanile that he refrained from ordering an artillery strike, sparing it from destruction. How different the tourist appeal of this area would have been if it were not for the decision of one cultured Army sergeant. To him we will forever be grateful.

The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa

Once you enter the tower, there is a short talk by your guide explaining an abridged history of the building. Then you’re free to wander up the 294 steps as best you can. I was surprised to find that the inside of the tower is an empty chamber. I don’t know what I expected to be there, but it wasn’t nothing. The tower is made of two concentric cylinders, with a staircase winding between the two of them. The narrow staircase is very disorienting. Apart from the fact that the tower is leaning, the only clues you have as to how high you are and in which direction you are facing are a few small windows on the journey up. The steps seemed to go on for a lot longer than I first guessed the tower to be high, although you’re so busy concentrating on where you are stepping that things such as distance become irrelevant. You just want to get to the top. The lean of the tower makes it feel a bit like you’re drunk, swaying this way and that as you make your way around the walls, never knowing what angle you are at at any given moment. There are grooves worn into the steps where previous visitors have all tilted the same way. I wouldn’t recommend the tower to anyone with issues surrounding small spaces, climbing lots of steps or vertigo. Children under 8 are not allowed inside the tower, and once on your way up it is obvious why. When at last you come out into the open air, you are on a walkway that circles the tower. Another, shorter, narrow staircase leads you to the upper most level and the bells themselves. There are 7 bells in the bell chamber, one for each note of the musical scale. It seems almost a shame that the bells are overshadowed by the tower itself. If the campanile hadn’t been built on soft ground, they would have been the stars of the show.

294 steps to the top – it’s a long way! Check out the grooves on the steps where everyone has swayed to the left.
View from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The city looked beautiful with the mountains in the background

At €15, the entrance fee to the tower is by far the most expensive of all the attractions in Pisa. The Italians weren’t going to miss out on making money from the one thing that makes Pisa world-famous. It’s worth paying the ticket price for the views, photo opportunities and the experience of walking up those steps. I’m sure there are gyms that would charge more than that for an equivalent work-out. The tour takes 30 minutes, and you don’t need anymore time than that to experience the tower.

The Leaning Tower is the only building in the Piazza Miracoli that you have to pay separately for. The other five are available individually or via combi-tickets. I chose to buy a ticket for all 5, which cost me €10. The whole square has a relaxed feel to it. Unlike the tower, where visits have to be regulated for safety reasons, you are free to wander amongst the other buildings at your own leisure. Your ticket is valid for the whole day, so it’s up to you in which order and when you visit everything.

Generally, I am not a fan of the art and architecture of cathedrals and churches. However, I would highly recommend that anyone who has the slightest interest in any kind of art, architecture or the creativeness of the human mind pay the two euros to visit Pisa cathedral.

The incredible Pisa Cathedral

Construction on the cathedral began in 1064, when Pisa was among the richest and most powerful cities of the Mediterranean. The building looks impressive from the outside, but the inside is almost too much to take in. I’d heard about the plentiful works of art here, but I was not prepared for what I would see. Every available space has been elaborately decorated with some of the most detailed and thought-through pieces I have ever seen. In other buildings it could too overpowering, but the huge cathedral structure is the perfect setting for this amazing collection. The only slight downside for me was the replacement of the candles with fake plastic ones, a common practice in churches and cathedrals nowadays. In an area of historic importance that has had so many problems with fire in the past, though, you can’t blame them for being cautious.

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the ‘Museum of the Cathedral’, is housed in a building next to the tower which was the residence of the canons of the Duomo. It is home to artwork from the cathedral (yes, even more of it!), the tower and the baptistry.

Opposite the cathedral, in a meaningful location that allows the newly baptised a straight path to their place of worship, is the Baptistry. Until it was decided that a specific structure was needed, the ceremony of baptism used to be performed wherever there was running water. The difference between baptising a baby in a local river and in this grand building seems such a huge jump. One giant room with a first-floor viewing gallery, everything in the Baptistry is focused towards the font and the centre of the action. Whilst in the baptistry, I was very lucky to witness the acoustics of the building when two singers stepped forward to try them out. I’m always envious of people who have the ability to sing well, and the talents of these two were only enhanced as their voices drifted gracefully around the interior.

The fourth major building in Piazza dei Miracoli is the Camposanto, or monumental cemetery. Originally conceived as a church, the cemetery is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil, hence the name ‘Campo Santo’ (Holy Field). The building itself was started a century later, and was only completed in 1464 due to the original architect, Giovanni di Simone, being killed in a naval battle in 1284.

The interior of the Camposanto. You can see some of the frescoes on the walls.

The Camposanto is most famous for its frescoes, the first of which were applied in 1360 and the last about three centuries later. The purpose of the frescoes was to provide a pictorial representation of sermons. Although the artwork started to show deterioration during the first centuries of its existence, it was an incendiary bomb that caused the most damage when the entire building caught fire in 1944. A programme was started to remove the original frescoes from the walls of the camposanto and preserve them. This work led to an amazing discovery, the preliminary drawings, or ‘sinopie’ under the painted surfaces. The Museo delle Sinopie now houses these original charcoal and red chalk drawings. The images are ghost-like, mere suggestions of what was to be painted on the finished fresco. The dimmed lighting of the museum interior, installed to protect the artwork from deteriorating further, adds to the feeling that the drawings might develop in front of your eyes and become clearer on the wall. I found that it was better to stand further away from the pictures in order to see the full composition, the closer you stand the more they disappear.

Some elements are drawn darker than others. As you make your way along the gallery, a prince suddenly jumps out at you from a faded crowd scene. On another wall, a mother is breast feeding her baby clear as day, but the mother has no face.

Both the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie, as like the rest of the square, are very well organised. Directional arrows and information boards ensure that you don’t miss a thing. You’re also very trusted in these museums, there are no ropes to keep you at a safe distance from the exhibits or museum guards watching you like hawks, just a small sign here and there asking you not to touch. My whole experience of Piazza dei Miracoli was more positive than I expected it to be. I didn’t feel rushed or ushered at all, I was simply allowed to take in the history and culture of the square and its buildings at my own pace.

Innsbruck to Pisa

After three days visiting my family in Innsbruck, Austria last week, the time came for me to continue on to one of my ‘new places’. Although I have visited Italy before, my journeys there have mainly been to make use of the ski slopes in the Alps or for a change of scenery on a day trip when I lived in Austria. This would be the first time that I was visiting Italy as a proper tourist, with the purpose of sightseeing and taking in the culture.

Before I could enjoy Pisa, my final destination, I had a day of train travel ahead of me. My sister-in-law and two nieces waved me off at the train station in Kematen-in-Tirol, from where I would travel into the main train station at Innsbruck. Then came the longest part of my journey, over the border via Brenner into Italy. At Bologna I had to change trains to Florence, and then finally a regional service would take me the last leg of my journey to Pisa.

When I left Innsbruck, the weather was very similar to that of the UK the previous few weeks, Austria being the victim of a bad weather front that had attacked from the south. The sky was heavy with rain clouds that slowly soaked our clothes through, and the mountains that give Innsbruck its famous beautiful scenery were hidden behind thick clouds. I boarded the train damp, sniffling and concerned that my four days in Italy would be a washout.

As I always instruct my godson to do on our summer camping trips in Wales, I began to make ‘sunshine wishes’. Fortunately, my magic did not fail me on this occasion. Although I couldn’t shake the cold that I had caught in Austria, as we crossed the border into Italy the sun was shining.

As the train stopped briefly in each town we passed through, there were more and more mopeds parked alongside each train station, a sure sign we were heading in the right direction. Further on, vineyards lined the railway track on either side. Oh yes, we were definitely in the right place. Every available space in this region of Italy is covered in vines, and steppes are cut in to mountainsides to create even more room. The mountains are only left natural where they are simply too steep to do anything else with.

Spending a day on a train is an odd experience. Essentially, you are trapped in a metal box with a bunch of complete strangers, forming your own temporary community where you must learn to adapt and co-exist for the sake of everyone’s comfort. I’d managed to reserve a seat for my first two trains to Florence, so I had the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the landscape as we whizzed by. The only less than comfortable part of the journey was the leg from Florence to Pisa. As it was a regional train, I was unable to reserve a seat. On top of that, I’d hit Florence at rush hour and there were hundreds of commuters trying to board the same train as me. Only they weren’t carrying a 40 litre backpack and a daypack. After an hour spent holding the door open for other passengers (the only place to stand was at the end of a carriage, next to the door, and it was either hold it open or get whacked in the face every time someone walked through it) I finally arrived in Pisa. And it was soooo warm! If that is the temperature at 7pm on an October evening, the place must be an oven in the middle of summer. A short, and sweaty, walk later I arrived at my hostel, excited about the next morning and my first full day in Pisa.