Tuscan travels (Part 1)

The Pisa Cathedral and its famous Leaning Tower. Photo by Pepper Teehankee on a Canon PowerShot S120

 

One of my favorite airlines, Qatar Airways, recently added the Italian city of Pisa to the growing list of cities it flies to. Prior to my recent visit to Pisa, the last time I was in the city was 17 years ago.

Tuscany, a region in central Italy where Pisa can be found, has seven locations recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and I was looking forward to seeing them.

It was a very comfortable ride from Manila to Doha. At the massive and luxurious Qatar Airways lounge in Hamad International Airport,  we waited to board the airline's inaugural flight from Doha to Pisa.

 

 

 

 

When the Qatar Airways flight arrived at Pisa's international airport, it was welcomed with a celebratory water canon salute and a ceremony with flags and drums from people in traditional costumes.

The VIP delegation on board the flight, which included the airline's senior vice president for Europe Jonathan Harding, who was awarded an OBE or Order of the British Empire in 2006 and was chief operating officer for UK Trade & Investment in 2012, was welcomed by Tuscany Airports president Marco Carrai and CEO Gina Giani and Mayor of Pisa Marco Filippeschi.

Pisa is the fourth city in Italy to be served by Qatar Airways, which has been flying to Milan since 2002, to Rome since 2003 and to Venice since 2011. The new daily flight to Pisa will increase the airline's weekly flights from Doha to Italy from 35 to 42, with more than 150 onward destination choices available.

In honor of the inaugural flight, the airline hosted a lunch at Bagni di Pisa, a unique spa built in the former summer palace of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Hot springs, great food and a salt scrub bath awaited the guests. We then explored Pisa the best way possible - by foot.

Exploring Pisa

Pisa is famous for its Leaning Tower, which is the most photographed monument at the Piazza dei Miracoli or Square of Miracles (formally known as Piazza del Duomo or Cathedral Square), a walled 8.87-hectare area. The tower, which is actually a bell tower, is the third oldest structure in Pisa's Cathedral Square.

The square has four great religious edifices - Pisa Cathedral, Pisa Baptistry, the Campanile and Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). Our group was lucky enough that the Tuscany Tourism managed to get us access to walk the perimeter of the medieval walls not open to the public. This gave us wonderful views of the entire square. Some of us dared to climb the bell tower. Atop the tower was calm and quiet in contrast to the busy, noisy piazza below. 

After shopping for souvenirs in the stalls nearby, we walked toward Palazzo Gambacorti, now the Town Hall, to meet some local officials. Pisa Deputy Mayor Paolo Ghezzi showed us around as we marveled at the beautiful frescoes and intricately carved ceilings of the Town Hall. Ghezzi also showed us the replica of the Leaning Tower in alabaster. A lovely Italian seafood dinner capped our perfect first day in Pisa. 

Lucca & Viareggio

The next day, our group took to the nearby towns of Lucca and Viareggio.

The city of Lucca is famous for its intact Renaissance era city walls. I suggest four must-dos when visiting Lucca. First is to see San Michele in Foro, a Roman Catholic basilica built over the ancient Roman forum. Check out the four-meter statue of St. Michael the Archangel on its façade. While in the vicinity, have a cup of coffee by the piazza and have it with buccellato, a sweet bread popular in Lucca.

Second is to go to the Puccini Museum, which is formerly the house where the great composer Giacomo Puccini was born. See his handwritten notes and elaborate costumes from his operas while listening to his beautiful music. Third is to eat in La Buca di Sant'Antonio, an excellent restaurant that has been around since 1782. And fourth is to climb the Guinigi Tower, a Romanesque-Gothic architecture built within the city walls, dating back to the 1300s. Lucca looks magnificent when viewed from the tower's "garden in the sky."

After Lucca, we were off to Viareggio on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Viareggio has hundreds of beach beds that uniformly line the coast of this seaside city. Our group went sailing and enjoyed the antipasti and prosecco on the sailboat, a welcome break from all the walking we did.

Florence: The cradle of Renaissance

Our third day saw us excited to visit Florence, the capital of Tuscany, where we went straight to the Academia (www.florence-museum.com). Take note that the queue at the Academia is extremely long so making reservations or purchasing tickets ahead of time is strongly advised. Everyone flocked to the most famous art piece in this museum, which is Michelangelo's David. It is indeed a sight to behold but do notice the other great Michelangelo pieces of sculpture such as the different Prisoners or Slaves, and his other version of Pieta. The stunning Rape of the Sabine Women is right by the entrance and other Boticelli works are housed here as well. 

Florence is known as the "cradle of the Renaissance" for its monuments, churches and buildings. Its best-known site is the domed Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo, which is still the  largest dome built in brick and mortar in the world.

The historic center of Florence was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. At the heart of the city, in Piazza della Signoria, is Bartolomeo Ammannati's marble sculpture Fountain of Neptune at the terminus of a still functioning Roman aqueduct. Something not to be missed by fans of fashion is the famed Gucci Museum, which has a café that serves pretty good Italian food.

Our group had the entire afternoon strolling around the city, visiting Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in the city; shopping at the San Lorenzo outdoor market; and eating/shopping for food at Mercato Centrale.

With loads of shopping bags in tow, we then headed back to our hotel in the hills of Fiesole, a 20-minute drive from the city. 

Watch out for this column's Part 2 next week for more of this columnist's Tuscan travels.

 

(Qatar Airways flies twice daily from Manila to Doha, and once daily from Clark to Doha. From Doha's Hamad International Airport, passengers can seamlessly connect to more than 100 destinations including Pisa. For more information, visit qatarairways.com/ph and www.qatarairways.com or call 519-1888. Do check out www.turismo.pisa.it/en/ when you plan to visit Pisa.)

 

(Follow me on Instagram @pepperteehankee.)

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