On Wednesday, I visited the Museo San Matteo in Pisa, which features a unique collection of 13th century religious artwork. Now, there is only so many Virgin and Child and Crucifix scenes that one can absorb in one day, so I was only there a little over an hour. Of course, it was interesting to see art that old, but I wish that the museum was better organized. The museum is wildly popular amongst art historians, but regular people don’t even know its on the map. This means that is gets less than 1,000 visits per year. Apparently, the museum can not afford to label the artwork presented, or provide any sort of commentary about what the viewer is observing. I know by experience that my favorite museums in the world do not have to have the best or most famous art, but they do need to have intriguing commentary and quotes of interest regarding the artwork presented. Sadly, only a select few really invite the viewer to stop, think, and analyze the artwork which they are seeing.
Later in the day, I went for my first long run in Pisa. I found the Piagge gardens, which are located right along the riverfront of the Arno where it starts to leave central Pisa and turn towards Florence. The gardens are a favorite running spot of many Pisanos, so there were many other people there running along the trail by the river. The best thing about the gardens is that there are workout stations every once in a while to do pushups, situps, etc. It’s virtually an outdoor gym for the people of Pisa. Most of my long runs will feature this area since it is for pedestrians only, mostly shaded, and has outdoor workout equipment. Not to mention the breeze off of the river cools it off, so its perfect!
On Thursday, after dropping the boys off at school, I caught a train to Lucca, a walled city about 30 minutes by train from Pisa that still looks very much like it did during the Middle Ages. La Mura, the ancient walls, run for about 2 and a half miles around the city and are still in excellent condition. This is apparently because Lucca is an old trading and commerce center, and still has many of the best shops in the region. The train dropped me off a 5 minute walk to the walls, close to the main church of the city. So, my first visit was to the Duomo, an impressive 13th century masterpiece which is still beautifully cared for an intact. I bought one of the church passes to see the religious sites in the area. First, I visited the front of the Duomo, admiring the painted dome and small details that surrounded me. So many tourists try to capture every little detail of the beautiful artwork they find before them, and I used to be like that too, but by this point I have realized that there is simply no point. No camera can capture the grandeur and the scale of the size of these old masterpieces. It is something that only the eyes can absorb.
In the Duome, I got to see the Tomb of Ilaria, carved in marble but seemingly lifelike, one of the towns most revered masterpieces. I next visited the Museum of the Duomo, where items from the treasury and artwork from long ago stands on display to be admired. Then I walked next door to yet another church, Chiesa de Reparta, where the best part was underground. A building has existed in this spot for centuries, so underneath the floor an excavation was carried out to discover the Roman remains from the 3rd and 4th century AD. One can even see detailed mosaics from that time period which used to line the church floor. It’s amazing to think that the level of the city has risen more than 10 feet since that time. I also got to climb to the top of the church bell tower for a beautiful view over the old walled city, then descended and headed towards the tower which I had really come to climb.
The Tower Guingi is still standing and in excellent condition. The tallest tower in Lucca at 144 feet, it was a display of wealth in the palace of Lucca’s ruling family. A strenuous and narrow ascent leads one to the top viewing platform where a grove of 5 trees sprouts event higher into the sky, their roots extended down into the staircase below. The view from the top is a postcard perfect snapshot of a medieval city with a doting of towers and churches compressed within limiting walls only 2 and a half miles around.
After descending the tower, I went to check out the Piazza Antiteatro, a piazza with houses built directly about the old Roman theater, so that the piazza forms a circular shape. In some places it is still possible to see the old remains of the theater, but not much is left. I stopped at a shop and grabbed some bread, ham, cheese, and wine and walked back to La Mura to enjoy a picnic overlooking some of the gardens. Then I walked down to find San Michele in Foro, another impressive old church in the city. I sat down and enjoyed a cappuccino in the square, then went to the main street to where the Grom gelateria was located. I did a little shopping, selecting a beautiful hand painted coffee mug with the Tuscan landscape done in a ceramic studio, then went back up to the wall the walk back to the train station. Lucca is a charming old town, with many towers and churches to admire, and much history to learn about. It is a perfect day trip from Pisa or Florence, as it lies between the two.
On Friday in Pisa, I visited the Museum of Graphic Arts to enjoy their flowers and foods exhibition of photos, painting, sculpture, and more – all centered around natural themes. I enjoyed this exhibition more than the dreary religious art of the 13th century. Pisa is one of the first cities to have a Botanical Garden for study at the University, so old drawings from the 16th century up until today were presented. After the museum, I checked out the city food market, grabbing some apricots to snack on, then headed around the Trentamontana side of the river, peeking into boutique shops. I found a multi-colored dress in European style for a reasonable price which I decided to invest in. For dinner, we had home made pizza and fruit. I went to bed as early as I could to be ready to wake up at 5am the next morning.