Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Pisa cake and a big long tunnel...

Driving through the tunnel at San Giuliano Terme and opening out with the city of Pisa infront of us was spectacular.

After a day recovering from the night before in Rome, Kerry and I drove through the misty, rainy region of Tuscany to get to a motorhome aire located just outside Pisa, famous for it's leaning tower. But as soon as we popped out of a fairly short tunnel under a hilly section, our spirits were brightened and the hangovers seemed to fade away. The setting sun shone in to the van and a picturesque countryside opened out to the seas in the distance.

Navigating around the Eastern part of Pisa was a little tricky as there was a huge viaduct traversing its way across the town. Unfortunately the arches had a height limit that we could not get under so we had to follow it until we found a broken down section with a road to get through. Getting to the Aire was a piece of cake and we were welcomed by happy faces, a map of the town and a large, fully functional aire with tens of vans in. Not like other parts of Italy!

It seemed this place had it nailed. I can only surmise that the authorities recognised and valued the custom that motorhomers can bring and invested a bit of money to welcome them whole heartedly.

We got chatting to the guy on the front gate and it transpired that his daughter lived just 20 miles away from our home town in Burgess Hill. He gave us a card for an Italian restaurant that she ran and also gave us his card and said to show it if we ate there to get a discount. His title was Colonel!

After a lovely dinner and a few bottles of wine from the nearby Carrefour we got our heads down ready for a day meandering through the streets of Pisa. The walk in to town was a pleasant, mile long, amble. Going through the walls of the old walled city changed the scenery from modern roads to almost medieval looking cobbled streets.

The sun was shining and the whole city felt warm. The streets were lined with soft hues of stone block work and then suddenly open out in to numerous squares. People cycled around and coffee shops were packed.. We are in Italy still!

I managed to get us a bit lost... of which I was quite disappointed. I pride myself in my magical navigatory skills, but Pisa broke me. We ended up walking straight passed the 'Leaning Tower' and out of the other side of the city! But after a quick re-orientation using the river as an aid we were back on track, walking down the same streets just in reverse!

Then it opened out in to the square with the leaning tower leaning at a very scary angle. I didn't realise just how much it lent over! Basically when they started building it they got Bodgit 'n' Scarper in to do the footings. Consequently it started to lean just a year in to construction. It took over 200 years to build because Pisa was constantly fighting Florence, Lucca and Genoa.

See the slight curve?
Half way through they decided to build the top portion at a corrected angle, making the tower actually curved. I thought this was a funny idea. It also means that the tower has either 194 or 196 steps, depending on which set you take.

What I didn't realise was that the tower was accompanied by two other very spectacular buildings, a cathedral and a baptistery. All religious in nature, and all lavished in elaborate masonry and even some gold leaf. The marble used to build them was very white and had come from the same mountains we had popped out of on our way to the city.

All around the plaza was a well kept lawn. There were signs everywhere saying 'Keep off the grass' in all different languages. The only trouble was that to get the best picture you HAD to go on the grass. So we watched for a good half an hour as 4 'grass police' chased and ushered people off of one section of the grassy area, only to turn around and find that 20 other people had just hopped the small, knee high fence 50 metres away. Quite why they couldn't pavement the best sections I don't know. I suppose it kept them in a crazy job of cat and mouse.

Another funny thing to watch was all of the poeple 'holding up' the tower. Except we chose to watch them from a totally different angle. This made it seem like they were at some sort of gym or aerobics class. Either that or training at a Hitler youth camp.

We, of course, couldn't resist, and followed suit with our own homage to holding up the tower. Ironically the tower doesn't need holding up. Engineers stabilised it in 2008, claiming that it would be stable for the next 200 years.


Kerry flexing her muscles
The sun was beating down and we had a nice cold beer and typical Italian pizza in Pisa! It was very nice. Again I made the mistake of asking for my Calzonni to be 'hot'. Forgetting that they came pretty darn hot to start with. I struggled through, quenching the burn with pint after pint of beer. Phew!

After another night in the excellent Aire we decided to make a trek home. The van was still making clunky noises and we were pretty tired. The first leg was up in to Northern Italy and passed Torino. Night time set it and we fueled had to fuel up again at an astonishingly high rate of 1.80 euro a litre. Then we noticed that there were lights high up in the distance ahead and decided to hunker down in a small town so we could see the alps during the day.

Upon waking up we were met with spectacular views of the peaks. We made our way up in to the mountains and towards the Mont Blanc tunnel.

The tunnel itself is an amazing 11.6 km (7.2 Miles) long. An astonishing feet of engineering. We paid our 50 Euro fee to use the tunnel and was met with a mutli-lane, gated entry where we sat waiting our turn. Once our neighbours had entered the tunnel the system waited until they were the obligatory length in to the tunnel and then our gate would open, allowing us to proceed. Inside the tunnel was a strict speed limit and we had to maintain 2 blue LED lights between us and the vehicle in front.

All of these precautions were because of a lorry fire in 1999 that showed just how dangerous the tunnel could be in an emergency. 39 people died. The ventilation system forced the smoke down the tunnel faster than the fleeing people and cars could go and the lack of oxygen stalled the engines in the cars. Drivers wound their windows up waiting for rescue but the fire crews engines has also stalled and the stricken vehicles meant they could not get to then truck.

Unfortunately the truck was carrying margarine and flour, two fairly flammable substances. It burnt for 53 hours, reaching 1000 degrees C. Some people say that the authorities compounded the situation by force venting the tunnel with fresh air from the French side, fueling the fire with oxygen.

Mont Blanc tunnel
After safely exiting the tunnel we gunned it for home. We were all Frenched out. Whilst France is a lovely, changeable and interesting landscape... We'd seen it all before and northern France can be a little monotinous with its constant rolling hills and plains. We made the journey from Torino, Italy to Dieppe, France in 12 hours including the tunnel, stopping only for fuel stops. We were lucky and grabbed the last available place on the ferry the next day. Our second stint in Europe was over and we happily, if also tiredly, drove in to Horsham late that evening

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