Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leaning Towers and Shirtless Italians - I mean, Medieval Fairs

It wouldn’t be a kitsch trip of touristy goodness without seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After riding just over an hour to get there, we of course had our priorities straight and instead of going directly to the tower, went to a family-run Gelateria passed through the generations from the man given credit for inventing modern ice cream. Once again, Italy proved why it is the reigning King of Gelato. Although not as cute and quaint as some of the other, younger Gelaterias, the service was wonderful and so was the Gelato. Courts strayed from the norm and got a Tangelo Granite (slushy) while I did my usual and asked them what the best they had was. The three they chose were chocolate (lazy, fail-safe choice), pear (bizarre because pear itself is such a mild flavour and should probably be sorbet) and almond (nice, but no chocolate-wine).

After a tiki-tour across the river (thank you GPS) we eventually crossed back and behind the Gelateria in search of the tower. We stumbled across an antiques and crafts market on the way, which was awesome. There was all sorts I would have loved to have bought but the highlight was undoubtedly the pet rocks. You heard me right, pet rocks. These river stones had been hand painted to look like various animals and then places in context. Dog and cat rocks slept on little pillows, parrot rocks stood upright on rock feet, and owl rocks slept on tree branches stuck to canvas backgrounds of night sky. They would have been laughable if they weren’t so amazingly painted, and I would have left with a Border Collie rock if it hadn’t deservedly been priced at 23 Euros.

As per usual, it was a bevy of tour groups that alerted us to the presence of the aforementioned tourist attraction, and if you hadn’t known it was the Leaning Tower you were near, you could have easily figured it out by the stupid number of idiots posing as if they themselves were holding it up in photos. Seeing photos of friends and tourists ‘holding up’ the leaning tower is one thing, but seeing a field of people all leaning haphazardly with one hand in a bizarre salute as others kneel and twist to get the camera angles just-so is a spectacle unto itself.

We walked around the tower, ridiculing the people walking up the top who had paid 15 Euros for the priviledge, ignoring the street vendors and marveling at the very cool cathedral and basilica in the same piazza as the tower. The tower itself is actually a pretty cool structure, and I’m really glad we made the trip to see it. We saw the first of what would turn out to be many, many sculptures on top of poles of human twins suckling wolves. I’m presuming they’re Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome who were raised by wolves, but I haven’t yet figured out why we saw them in Pisa, Florence and twice in Siena.

The highlight of seeing the Leaning Tower was not the tower, nor the very good Italian food we had just around the corner. It wasn’t even the Gelato. It was the idiot tourists who, standing next to me at a tacky souvenir shop (I do love tacky) who were trying to return a small figurine of the tower because it was straight. They were very upset that the figurine was straight and they wanted to find a leaning one. Despite the shopkeeper amusedly trying to explain it only looked straight when they held it up straight or when they put it down with the lean facing away from them, and then pointlessly trying to explain they were 3 Euro souvenirs and all came out of the same mold in identical shapes and leans, the tourists spent about 10 minutes comparing leans. At one point the patriarch of the family came over to make a big fuss and point out yet again that this tower did not lean.

When we recovered from our fits of giggles and the lunch we had afterwards, we jumped back on the bike and drove to Lucca, a medieval walled city. We had never heard of it before, until seeing that the day trip our campsite ran to Pisa included Lucca. When we found our way in, it kind of seemed like a lot of the old medieval-ness had been renovated and remodeled with the times, and many of the buildings were quite modern. The further in we went though, the more labyrinth-like the streets became and the more authentic the town felt. We stopped for drinks in a small café and were drawn outside by drums that sounded rather similar to those heard in Florence the previous day. The parade that was making it’s way past was exactly the same as the one we saw the day before, but with the leaders bearing ‘Lucca’ crests instead of those of multiple towns. The café owner told us it was the last day of a September festival in the area and that there was a medieval revival on the other side of town. We couldn’t pass that up, could we?

After finishing our drinks and stopping for candied nuts at a street vendor, we followed the sound of the drums to a piazza and into a medieval fair. It was awesome, stall holders all in medieval costume, metal workers crafting the jewellery they were selling as they were selling it, men playing medieval backgammon in the middle of the square sat on hay bales. I bought a small pot of honey and Courtney didn’t buy a small bag of Salvia he saw at a medicinal herb stall. The piece de resistance was not the shirtless Italian 20-somethings sword fighting in the field beyond the city walls, but the crossbow competition nearby. We sat and watched teams in medieval costume load crossbows with precision and shoot bulls eye after bulls eye across the field.

It was a long walk back to the bike and an even longer ride home, but such a good day. Funny how the most enjoyable things are those that are unplanned or unexpected, like walking into medieval Italy on a seemingly regular Saturday.