Monday, November 25, 2019

Italy, 1999

Since my last post, I've been busy with a training trip to Muscatatuck, two wedding paintings, and a proposal-writing project.  None of those things would make a memorable blog post.  So, instead, here's another post from our Great European Adventure in 1999.  We had just left Germany and driven down to Camp Darby, a US military base outside of Pisa, Italy.  So enjoy ...

                Thursday, November 18

We made it safely to Italy.  We're staying at a small Army base called Camp Darby, near Pisa.  The drive down from Germany was the worst of the entire trip.  It is a long drive (8 hours) from Chiemsee.  It was snowing slightly when we left and got progressively worse as we went past Innsbruck and up over the Brenner Pass.  At the top, it was coming thick and hard.  Traffic was heavy, roads were slick, and we did not have a good time.  When we got below the snow line, it turned to rain that remained heavy all the way to Pisa.  During that one trip we had snow, sleet, hail, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and heavy winds.  Yuck! 

When the weather eased up every now and then, the alpine countryside was spectacular.  The mountains are steep, rocky, and have lots of pine forests.  Every few miles there is a castle perched on a rock.  The route has been a strategic gateway between north and south for thousands of years and it was quite impressive to see the historic reminders of the past.  Particularly when the clouds would part a little bit to allow a glimpse of a sheer mountainside rising thousands of feet above the road.

Camp Darby looks like the Base That Time Forgot.  I don't know what their mission here is (might just be an ammunition storage facility) but it has two parallel main streets about a half mile long, and that's about it.  There is not much in the way of facilities.  Our room is a dump.  I've never stayed in a worse place that I've actually had to pay for.  It's an early-'70's plastic prefab unit.  They covered the plastic walls with plastic wallpaper and every sheet is peeling off.  All the plumbing and electrical wires are external to the wall.  The room has one (1) table lamp which is carefully situated so that it doesn't really shed any light on anything.  There is a TV in the corner which is all of 13" in size .... well, maybe 15" if you include the plastic casing.  We have, by actual count, one Armed Forces Network channel, one BBC channel, one Sky News channel, and 88 Italian channels.  The bathroom is particularly onerous.  The walls are covered with old tile, many of which had holes drilled in them for previous "renovations" which have since been removed.  The bathtub not only has running rust under the tap, it also has big patches of red scaly rust on the bottom.  And you have to run the tap for about five minutes to ensure the water coming out is clean.  When they have two roach motels in the bathroom, you know that's not a good sign!  Fortunately we haven't seen any creepy crawlies, at least not yet.  Of course, we can't get on the net from our room, so we're using the base library, which actually has some very nice computers.

Thursday, however, was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Absolutely crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, chilly but not too cold.  It was the first really nice day we've seen since we left Prague.  We decided to head into Florence to take advantage of the good weather.  I was here almost four years ago and said then that Florence pegged my "wow"-meter.  It's still awesome.  Mostly we just wandered around and got a feel for the city.  Janis went ape over all the fashions and jewelry and shopping. 

Florence is a city that defines "class".  The old city streets follow medieval patterns and wind in and out between buildings that are hundreds of years old.  Italian buildings are quite a bit different from German ones: they're big, square, usually some variation of gray, tan, yellow, or red stucco that's flaking off, and have green or brown shutters.  Most look a bit worn and shabby.  The exception to all this is the Duomo, which is Italian for "damn big church with a dome the size of Montana".  This church is built with black and white marble laid in intricate patterns, and covered with statues.  We didn't go inside on the first visit (we will on our next visit) but it was beautiful to see. 

Another find, for Janis at least, was the Ponte Vecchio.  This is a centuries-old bridge over the Arno River.  It is lined with jewelry stores on both sides, and has been this way for several hundred years.  Janis went into sensory overload halfway along the bridge.  I never thought I'd see the day when she couldn't look at one more jewelry store window, but friends, it happened on the Ponte Vecchio!

Transportation was easy.  We drove the Range Rover into Florence, which took about 45 minutes through the Tuscan mountains.  We parked below the train station and then walked all over the city from there.  Manned parking garages are the only way to go if you want to see your car, or the stuff in your car, again.

While wandering the city, we came across an archaeological dig in a city street.  It appears that, while digging a trench for utilities, construction workers found some old city walls.  Florence has full-time historians and archaeologists on its staff for just this sort of thing.  They swoop in, dig, take photos, measure everything, then carefully cover it up again.  This preserves the past and allows modern life to continue.  I was impressed.

On Friday, we went into Pisa.  This was a just a short drive from Camp Darby, but of course we got lost both going and coming.  The first thing we saw was the Leaning Tower.  I cannot believe the thing is still standing, it's over so far.  Pisa has a major effort ongoing to keep the tower upright: they're digging around and under it to solidify the base, and meanwhile they've strapped huge steel cables around the tower and anchored them to several supports.  Only the Italians would screw up a site survey, build a big tower on marshy ground, and when the building that never should have been built starts to fall over, turn it into a tourist attraction.  That's like Pennsylvania making a tourist attraction out of Three Mile Island.  Be that as it may, the Duomo, Baptistry, Memorial Cemetery, and Leaning Tower were all beautiful and interesting.  We also wandered around the rest of the town and found it to be quite charming.  Streets in the old city, of course, were narrow, cobblestone, and lined with shabby and colorful old buildings.  People are friendly and except for the Leaning Tower area, it is not a tourist trap.  It was quite lively in the early evening.  Christmas decorations are starting to appear and people packed the streets in the shopping areas.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever as we crossed the river: the thin clouds were brilliantly lit by the setting sun, with the silhouettes of ancient towers in the foreground, and it all was reflected in the river surface. 

Driving in Italy is certainly an experience.  Speed limit signs, stop signs, lane lines, and other such official proclamations are merely advisory.  It's normal to see three cars abreast on a two-lane road.  When the light turns green, you have 0.5 seconds to get moving or everybody behind you lays on the horn.  In keeping with the Italian nature, driving is an art form, not something that can be regulated.  You want the movement of the cars to flow beautifully, particularly if "beautifully" means that you can pass everything else on the road.  (Note: you don't pass a car in Italy, you surpass it, with all the emotional baggage that such a phrase entails).  In Amsterdam, most people get around on bicycles.  By contrast, Florentines use motor scooters and mopeds.  Herds of them rip along the city streets, dodging cars and buses and pedestrians (usually), and sounding like swarms of angry hornets.  You better stay alert on Italian city streets, or you’ll quickly wind up as road kill.

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