Tuscany

Our first trip to Italy together was in April 2001. The Italian border is only 30 minutes' drive from here but unfortunately the coastal motorway from there to La Spezia is one of the most stressful in Europe - a succession of flyovers and tunnels, more than 100 in all with many over a kilometer long. Add to that the fact that there are only two lanes in each direction, with no hard shoulder and lots of trucks and you can see why we haven't been to Italy earlier. The drive to Lucca, our first stop, took about 5 hours altogether.

The photo below left shows Lucca, seen here from the top of the clock tower.

Three guesses where this was taken...

But did you know the tower tilts less now than it used to, due partly to the 1000 tonnes of lead that was placed on one side, and partly to the 41 holes that are being drilled under the foundations?

On the left is the Duomo (cathedral) of Pisa.

Here is the special drill and the top of the 41 holes that have been drilled under the foundations, causing the tower to right itself slightly. Don't worry - there's no plan to bring the tower fully upright - it will be left leaning about 10 degrees - as it was 300 years ago.

The 'steel cables' in this picture are there only in case of emergency . The 'steel encasing bands' have a different purpose - they are there to reinforce the tower at its weakest point, where the spiral staircase creates a void in the south wall.

Why did the tower lean in the first place? Because it is very heavy (14500 tonnes) and exerts enormous pressure on the poor clay soil. The leaning of the tower was noticed almost as soon as the 200 year construction period began, so attempts were made to compensate by make upper levels tilt in the opposite direction - the bell tower has six steps on the south side but only four on the north.

Having just arrived from Hong Kong, we were amused to see that the only couple getting married in the Duomo on that day was Asian.

If you're planning to visit Italy, you'd better get used to seeing skulls in every church - they are almost as common as the Madonna and child...

If you appreciate marquetry (collages made from wood veneers) there are plenty to see in Italy, like the one shown below left.

Below right is one of the beautiful sculptures in the museum at Pisa.

Below left is a detail of a much larger image of hell, seen in the Museum. And below right is the Duomo (cathedral) at Pisa which is very impressive, not least because of the walls of black and white marble.

A detail of the facade of a small church, the Church of Santa Maria della Spina. The church has this name, meaning Saint Mary of the Thorn, because the merchant who rebuilt the church in 1323 reputedly owned one of the thorns from Jesus's crown. The whole church was moved in 1871 to reduce its vulnerability to flooding - it's now located... on the bank of the river Arno that runs through Pisa after passing first through Florence.

Montepulciano

Our good friend Benoit, a teacher at the French school in Rome, joined us at Arezzo. With Benoit, we traveled to this attractive perched town, Montepulciano.

The photo below shows a church outside the Montepulciano city walls.

Below left is the view from the Monte Oliveto Maggiore monastery, where there are some interesting frescoes, such as this fresco below right, in the church of the very touristy village of San Gimignano, which shows Eve emerging from Adam.

Siena

In Siena's famous central square (actually a semicircle), scene of dramatic bareback horse races between the city's guilds, we found pigeons queuing to enjoy a drink straight from the mouth of the she-wolf mother of Rome.

The walls and steeple of Siena's cathedral are made of layered black and white marble, just as in Pisa.

Inside the cathedral. It is huge, but was intended to be only the transept of a much larger cathedral which was never completed.

In the Piccolomini Library (part of Siena cathedral) we saw some impressive frescoes like this one.

This is one of the hotels we stayed in, half-way between Siena and Florence. The hotels in Tuscany are often attractive like this one, but also quite expensive. Tuscan wines, such as Chianti, as also disappointingly expensive compared to French wines.