I can’t remember a bus tour I didn’t like. Multiple tours in London, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Alice Springs, and Toronto have given me the chance to (usually cheaply) see a lot of stuff or getting you to places outside the city center (like Uluru or Niagara Falls) without having to plan your own transportation. The Best of Tuscany Tour from Walkabout Florence sounded promising and had great reviews. It picks me up in Florence and takes you Siena, lunch at a Tuscan winery, San Gimignano, and Pisa, then return to Florence at night. They mentioned that they offer luggage storage, in case you need/want to check out of your hotel in the morning (because you return at night), and that you can opt to leave the tour in Pisa, in case you wanted to see more on your own, or make another travel connection, like fly out of Pisa, as it is the largest airport in the region (Florence airport is smaller). I liked this idea, as not only was it cheaper than flying out of Florence (one way to Stockholm), but also allowed me to fly out of Galileo Galilei Airport the next day without having to travel from Florence to Pisa again. Plus, you know how much of a fan of his I am.
The pickup point is outside Santa Maria Novella Railway Station, across from 24-hour McDonald’s. They even had a guy with a small arrow-shaped sign, but if you couldn’t see the giant bus with the company logo, you’ll likely not be able to see the guy dressed in civilian clothes. In Siena, we are passed off to a local tour guide who knows the area better than the bus guide. We stop in front of Monte dei Paschi, the world’s oldest bank, before continuing on to the Cathedral of Siena. Morning fog can add drama to some photos, or it can just plain old interfere.
Lovers of horse racing know Siena as the setting of the Palio. Pop culture fans know the Palio as the horse race from the opening of Quantum of Solace. We are guided through small alleys and past shops and tiny apartments, then are given about 20 minutes to roam, which isn’t enough to even re-trace our path. It’s mostly enough time for people to use the restroom. I don’t remember if there are public restrooms (which require payment), but we are told that all cafes have restrooms for customers to use. You can buy a coffee to use the restroom, which seems counter-intuitive. Why always tell people to buy coffee? Why not say “buy anything”? I don’t like coffee (I do like coffee ice cream), nor did I need to use the restroom, but I did buy a ricciarelli, an almond cookie with origins in Siena.
The group meets up in the Piazza del Campo, the central area where Palio spectators are jam-packed while the horses and riders race three laps. Fun fact: clay from in and around Siena was used for paint and dyes, and later gave us the color “burnt sienna“.
Fonte Gaia and a thirsty bird
We are brought to an organic winery for a traditional Tuscan lunch. I sit between two Australian families, which I didn’t plan at all. I think I was the only solo traveler in the group. We are served bread, salad, and two different plates of pasta. The wine was heavily promoted. Being a winery, I guess the more they sell, the better their business. It reminded me of stories where tour guides take you to shops that pay them a commission when tourists buy stuff. Plenty of people finished lunch to walk through the gift and wine shop, while I went out onto the balcony and walk around the grounds.
San Gimignano is one of those places that you have seen before, but might not know the name (like this, this, this, this, and this). It is a walled town on top of a hill. There is a church, a Torture Museum, and a gelato shop that won Ice Cream World Championship twice, but was closed when I visited. First the Sistine Chapel, now this. Unfortunately, you can’t really see the charm and scale of this properly while you are near or in it, you have to be far enough away to see how special it looks. While you are within the walls, it feels like any other small medieval town, but just one that has really good views and a bunch of towers.
Last major stop is Pisa. The guide tells us that tickets are available for the various sights, free for the Duomo, and paid admission for the Leaning Tower (€18) and €5 each for the Baptistery, Camposanto (cemetery), and two museums. She suggests that we get tickets first thing upon entering Piazza dei Miracoli (“Square of Miracles”), as we arrive 15 minutes before the cathedral closes. I get through the line and to the entrance exactly at 5pm, when I see the guards close the doors and won’t let anyone enter. I’ll have to come back tomorrow morning. Remember, I’m cheap, so I get to walk and take lots of pictures instead (all the other buildings also close at 5pm). The one building I did pay to enter was the public restroom. They even give receipts.
The group gathers again to board a mini-train. If you’ve seen those trains for kids in malls or old people in airports, you know what they look like. However, this one had some kind of vinyl curtains that were cloudy so you couldn’t see through them well enough to take photos. It takes us though some of the rest of the town, past more churches and public squares, nothing too exciting. The good thing is that I saw where my hotel was, so I could maybe walk back after I leave the tour. I say maybe because it’s already dark and I don’t exactly know where the tour ends. I’ve been sticking near a British couple who are also leaving the tour in Pisa, in case we can share a taxi, me to my hotel, which is on the way to their destination, the airport.
The tour ends and the mini-train putts along a major road (being passed by angry motorists) and brings us to the bus at the bus transfer station, not the parking lot where we first disembarked. The other couple opts to stay at the bus station to wait for a bus to take them to the airport, so my options are to take a bus, taxi, or walk it, with my luggage at night in an unfamiliar part of town. Before I left home, I mapped the walking route from the Leaning Tower to my hotel, and it was a 1.2 km walk. Since I’m a bigstrongguy, I’ll walk it, there is no rush getting to the hotel, and I could tell from the bus/mini-train route that it will be easy, just follow the major road to the Arno River, turn left and eventually reach the hotel. Instead, I detour back through Piazza dei Miracoli for some night shots. Later, when I have time to check a map, I learn that I walked 2.5 km, more than double the distance I had anticipated.
My Pisa hotel is a good-looking historical building. The elevator is really small and they recommend you use the stairs so you can see the decorations and artifacts scattered around. No wifi, but there is a breakfast buffet and a nice looking reading room, with couches and a fireplace. I scored a cheap room, and it shows. It’s very plain, the bed is old, small, and very noisy, as it is a mattress directly on a network of wires. There is a sink, television, and a window that looks over a noisy alleyway (there was road noise all night long). The shared toilet and shower are on another floor. The part I disliked the most was the key: it is an old school metal key, but it is used on both sides of the door. The lock is also old, so you have to line up the key perfectly, there is a lot of empty space inside the mechanism for the key to wander. It took me almost a minute to unlock the door the first time. I use the key to unlock the door from the outside, then enter the room, and put the key back in the lock to lock the door from the inside. While this means I can’t get locked out of the room, because I need the key to lock the door from the outside, I don’t like the idea of having to find the key in the dark and lining it up in the lock to unlock the door in case of an emergency, like a fire. I wouldn’t return to this hotel, even if it were cheaper than €25/night.
It takes a long time to find dinner. The places I find along a pedestrian street are really expensive restaurants or cafes with pizza that looked like it had been there all day. Thanks go to the kebab shop that was still open, just a block away and around the corner from the hotel. I walked past it at first, preferring authentic Italian on my last night in Italy. After a fruitless search, I returned (ethnic eateries to the rescue again) and was pleased with the decision. The naan bread for my doner kebab was baked fresh to order right in front of me. Add fries and a cioccolato/amarena gelato from the shop next door and that’s a meal.