Pisa, Italy

IMG_1402We were warned against staying in Pisa.  I think the warning came after we had already booked a two bedroom apartment a block away from the Leaning Tower.  It is another case where low expectations led to a pleasant surprise for the five of us.  Who would have thought looking at building with a 5 degree tilt would be amazing?  Tourists everywhere posing as though they were holding the tower up.  A few were posed to make the picture appear their finger was on top of the tower.  It was interesting to watch the communication between the picture taker and the one posing.  Only one couple was trying to get the shot of the wife pushing the tower over.  Their communication was clearly broken. The picture taker tried repeatedly to change the pose, without success.

Strangely, it felt good to be amongst so many tourists.  Unlike Albenga, in Pisa there were Brits, French, German, Chinese, and Spanish in family clusters and in big tour groups of 20 to 25.  We did not detect American accents.  It was nice to hear English with a Bristish accent.  We talked with a Londoner with his girlfriend.  He was a snowboard instructor in the Alps and talked about 900 eur tips and working with a high end clientele from Russia.  His girlfriend had worked on cruise ships for the past years.  They had to depart to board their cruise ship.  They mentioned it would have been nice to spend more time exploring and relaxing on land.

When locals asked us where we were from, they smiled when we told them the US.  With big grins they said, “Americanos.”  It is nice to feel welcome.  It is feeling we have had for the past six weeks.

Similar to Paris, there were guards with automatic rifles.  Unlike Paris, they did not have their fingers on the trigger guard.  They lacked the seriousness of those in Paris.  Of course the Parisian guards felt the proximity of the Brussels and the November terrorism. *Note the lack of a line to climb the steps.  The guide books suggested buying the tickets online.  Perhaps because it was April and not summertime, there weren’t masses waiting in the queue.
At the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Great view after negotiating very worn marble steps, all the while adjusting for the tilt. Going up was not as much of a challenge as going down.
View from the Leaning Tower.  It was a beautiful day, about 70 degrees, much warmer than we became accustomed to in Paris.


The Leaning Tower was designed to be a bell tower for the adjacent cathedral.  The Tower was started in 1173.  Due to the lean construction stopped after the first three floors were completed.  99 years passed and it was assumed the ground would have settled.  To compensate for the lean additional height was added to the side of the wall that was tilted.  The additional weight on that side increased the pressure on the base and caused further lean.  The weight on the base was calculated to be 14,500 tons.  For 900 years the tilt increased by 1-2 mm annually.  To avoid the eventual collapse in 1964 a team of engineers and historians gathered to come up with a plan to stabilize the tower.  They used an 800 ton lead counterweight buried in the ground opposite the lean.  More details at: www.leaningtowerofpisa.net.

Rachel stands at the base of one of the 24 largest pillars holding up the cathedral.  Each pillar is a solid stone that has a base diameter of about 4 feet.  They extend up approximately 30 feet high.   Imagine in the 10th century they were able to quarry, cut a single stone into a column, move it Pisa, and then stand it upright. For the main columns this had to happen 24 times, without one column toppling another.  I did not count the other supporting columns but there were at least 30 of those.  Amazing engineering.


Albenga, Italy

Originally, we were going to stay in Cannes.  We found an apartment on the harbor with a view of the marina full of sailboats.  The reviews on VRBO mentioned good restaurants a few steps from the door, and outdoor cafes for a drink.  The VRBO calendar said it was vacant during the three nights we wanted to stay there. I  submitted the request and assumed everything would be set, so we moved on to reservations in Pisa and Rome.  After our deposit was accepted in Rome, the word came from Cannes – not available.  After writing to at least seven different apartments in Cannes it was apparent that there was a big TV convention in Cannes during the weekend we expected to stay.  I learned that the apartments were open but the price was three to four times the normal rate.  They also wanted to charge $1,000 eur for deposit. Cannes would have worked out great because we were trying to keep driving from one place to another to a manageable four hours or less (based on the Google maps estimate).

Street scene, notice how the space between the buildings shrinks.  Entering that alleyway leads to a maze of alleyways and small squares.

Since we had a three day hole in our schedule and had to find a place east of Cannes, the search was on.  Nice was an option but prices were high, there was no washer/dryer, or one of the kids would have had to sleep in the living room.  We had never heard of Albenga, but the apartment had three beds, good reviews, and the pictures looked interesting.  The expectations for Albenga as a town were low.  I figured we would be nestled in a small town on the Italian Riviera.  As it turned out, the apartment was a relatively new structure built behind a wall that dated to the middle ages.  We were able to park the car in a reserved spot and easily unload the car next to the outer door of the apartment.

Going out very old and large wooden double doors at the back of the apartment,we entered a maze of alleyways that were too tight for a car.

The view out our apartment window.

Even a Smart car would have scraped mirrors.  The historic passages were surrounded by three or four story residences.  The ground floors were shops; restaurants, bakeries, and even a hardware store.  There were a few tourist shops sprinkled in the mix.  The alleyways were interconnected with small squares were a restaurants and tapas bars had outdoor tables and chairs.  The whole effect was charming.

Exiting the alleyways opened up to a city street that eventually led to a boardwalk.  By the time the girls finished homework it was 1:00 pm.  Except for cars buzzing about, it appeared the town was closed.  Even the restaurants were dark.  When we reached the boardwalk, all the shops and restaurants appeared to be closed for the season.  While walking the length of the boardwalk, Marcia talked to a high school, maybe college age, girl who was waiting for her friends to catch up her.  She had been jogging.  She explained that everything would be closed till 3:30.  We had read about offices closing down from 12:30 to 3:30, but did not realize how pervasive the closures would be.  Even the restaurants were closed.

At about 4 pm the shops opened.

It was nice to be in a town without tourists.  We did not hear English, French, Spanish, or German for three days.  While some of the waiters and waitresses spoke limited English, it was not like Paris where almost everyone had some command of English.  We managed to catch-up on the laundry, get some homework done, and have a relaxing three days.

Lilies blooming on one of the squares within the historic district of alleyways.
A service center with Total gas/diesel and one of the restaurant we had a pleasant lunch break.
Notice the mountains in the backround.  We were impressed with the highways in France and Italy.  Expensive but well maintained.


Normandy Cemeteries

I was surprised to see a large parking lot that was almost full of cars.  There were three or four high end tour buses parked in a special area.  The Omaha beach visitor center was large building with an long endless reflecting pool on the lower level.  The exhibits were were numerous and supplemented with multiple flat screens.  The Images of Omaha Beach and the cemetery frequently appear in the media.  President Obama’s 2014 visit for the 70th anniversary of D-Day resulted in much press coverage. Before arriving I had a clear image of what to expect, i.e., long rows of crosses, and a generalized sense of depression.

Among the thousands of crosses, it was rare to see the Star of David.  GIs reportedly had three options for religion on their dog tags; “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic, or “H” for Jewish (from the word, “Hebrew”), or (according to at least one source) “NO” to indicate no religious preference.

According to a letter to the NY Times,

Many Jewish G.I.’s omitted from their dog tags the indication that their religious identity was Jewish for the prudent reason that in the event of falling into German hands, their lives would be at greater risk if they were identifiable as Jewish.           PAUL LIPPMAN Hoboken, N.J., June 14, 1994

From talking to friends and family who previously visited Omaha Beach, I expected to feel much sadness.  In fact I felt more angry about the wasted lives than sadness.  Marcia reported sadness.

We also visited the German cemetery where 7000+ Germans were buried. We arrived to see three cars in the parking lot, no tour buses and no one staffing the small visitor center. Like the American counterpart there were crosses, but there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a cross and a deceased soldier.  The actual grave markers were flat on the ground.

It bothered me that I felt more depressed at the German cemetery than at the American.  I also felt angry about wasted lives.  Based on dates it was not uncommon to see that teenagers were buried in some of the graves.  The feeling was exacerbated by the thousands of German lives that seem to have been forgotten.  

There was plaque at the base of the monument.  I noticed a family discussing the plaque, so I ventured a question in English. Of course they spoke English well. The dad was able to translate some of the statement.  The essence was that the graves were a testament to darkness of war.  Light and hope were represented in the crosses.  It turned out the couple was from Belgium and had the same reason for visiting the German cemetery as we did. They wanted their kids to see both sides. After talking to the couple for several minutes, we learned that they were from Brussels and that exactly one week ago the terrorists had struck the Brussels.  They described the whole city being shut down.  It was a Monday and people were stuck in their offices. We mentioned the Eiffel Tower was lit in the colors of Belgium and  many Belgian flags were hung on government buildings. Collectively, we lamented that horrors of war are still being felt by innocent citizens today in the middle east.

Rather than head back to the hotel we went on to Mont St Michel. The girls were not thrilled about driving 2 hours out of our way.  Despite their protests, their parents had the final say.  The girls retaliated by complaining for a at least 30 minutes.  They were relentless.  When we arrived at the Mont St Michel is was overcast and cold. As the kids were starving, we located a quaint restaurant that was warm and had nice ambiance with stone walls.

It was low tide when Sarah, Rachel and I walked back to the car.  At high tide the sandy area is completely covered.  Ella and Marcia took the bus.

After all the complaining, the girls had a good day climbing various stairways to get up and around the island.