The Noordam spent yesterday at sea traversing the Mediterranean between Sardinia and Livorno. It’s not a great distance (since we were supposed to be coming from Tunisia), so I should accurately say we floated slowly back to mainland Italy. I spent most of the day in the Crow’s Nest relaxing, reading, writing, and doing my best to ignore the raucous bingo crowd that joined me in the late afternoon. The Crow’s Nest is the highest, most forward point on the ship that’s accessible to passengers. The 180-degree windows allow you to see the entire horizon, enjoying a safer, windless version of your Jack Dawson King Of The World fantasy. Large lounge chairs line the entire span of the window and once you’re settled in, it’s quite easy to lose more than a few hours up there. There is a full bar and roving cocktail waiters as well. Later that evening, all the journalists and our guests ate dinner at Noordam’s Canaletto, a family-style Italian restaurant on the Lido Deck. There is an additional charge to dine in this venue, but much like Pinnacle Grill it’s well worth the cost. Back home I couldn’t purchase even one of the dishes we ate for the cost of admission. The food was excellent and plentiful. All dishes are meant to be shared, most the size of large appetizers. We ordered one of everything on the menu (17 dishes) to start, and ordered repeats of our favorite flavors. Our sommalier from the Pinnacle Grill joined us in Canaletto and the wine flowed throughout the three-hour dining experience.
Early this morning the Noordam docked in Livorno, Italy. Livorno is known as the gateway to Tuscany, if arriving from the Mediterranean Sea. Holland America offered excursions to regional highlights such as Florence, Sienna, Lucca, Pisa, and many small Tuscan hill towns throughout the Chianti region. The last time I was in Italy I explored all of the above, except for Lucca and Pisa, so that’s where I headed today. Before I discuss my excursion, let me say a few things about the port city of Livorno. While the city was a thriving port in the medieval era, only 700 people lived there. In the early 1600s the ruling Medicci family hired architect Buontalenti to design “the ideal city,” which is the Livorno we experience today. As with virtually any city in Italy, it is a complex maze of narrow cobblestone streets, churches, and piazzas. The official tourism office has a location right on the dock, just outside the Noordam. You can arrange independent tours, taxis, or hop on the city’s shuttle bus. The shuttle takes you to via Cogorano near Piazza Grande and costs 5 Euro for an all-day pass. You can purchase your ticket on the bus and you must pay cash.
Lucca was the first stop on our excursion. En route the tour guide informed us that Lucca produces 60% of the toilet paper and Kleenex for the whole of Europe (obscure trivia for your next cocktail party). There are 90,000 people living in the city’s full metro area, but our tour was focused on the medieval city. Lucca is one of many medieval cities in Tuscany to have defensive fortress walls; however, it is the only city with the full original wall still in tact. In fact, the wall was never breached, which no other city in Italy can claim. The city was also left untouched by both World Wars, meaning it’s perfectly preserved. The walls are so thick that there are now pedestrian parks, walkways, community gardens, mature trees, and even car races around the top.
We wound our way through the narrow streets (designed as confusing mazes, additional layers of protection against invading Florentines and Pisans) to Piazza San Michele and the Chiesa di San Michele. We learned that Lucca is known as the City of a Hundred Churches and within five minutes inside the city it’s easy to see why. Lucca is basically cafe, cafe, piazza, church, winding street, cafe, cafe, winding street, church, piazza, and repeat. We also visited the first and oldest church in the city. Built in 560 AD it still showcases the original wooden ceiling and teracota construction. Most churches that old usually went through a Gothic renovation, if they’re still standing at all. Lucca’s oldest church stands as untouched as the city itself. The highlight for me was the Piazza Anfiteatro. It was once a Roman ampitheater that held 10,000, explaining it’s large round shape, but it has since been converted into apartments and cafes. The tour guide told us that many of the structures used the original framework of the ampitheater seating to create the stories in their home. Today’s street level is nine feet above the original floor, according to Rick Steve’s. I really wanted to poke around inside even just one of them, but it wasn’t on the docket. I would happily spend an entirely vacation in Lucca, getting lost for hours and choosing a new cafe for every meal. I’m in love with Lucca, that’s the punch line.
The second stop on the excursion was the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tour included the baptistry (largest in Italy), the duomo, and of course the tower that leans at a 5.5 degree angle (15 feet from the vertical). As Rick Steve’s writes, the Pisan Campo is a large field that “theologically marks the main events of every Pisan’s life: christened in the Baptistery, married in the Duomo, honored in ceremonies at the Tower, healed in the hospital, and buried in the Camposanto Cemetery.” The tour guide explained that one enters the west doors of the Baptistery as a non-believer, is baptized, and leaves the Baptistery through the east doors…which lead to the cathedral where one worships and dedicates her life to God. The (bell) Tower behind the cathedral symbolizes a transcendent rise into heaven. All medieval towns are constructed with the same trinity: baptistery, duomo, bell tower. It’s a familiar pattern for me having traveled around Tuscany before, and I dare say Pisa rivals Florence in terms of the beauty of this architectural cluster.
The cathedral’s Pisan Romanesque construction began in 1063, leading even the Romans to call Pisa an ancient city. It differs from the strict Romanesque style in that it allows more light into the structure and is more delicately constructed overall. The cathedral’s nave is 320 feet, making it the longest nave in all of Christendom at the time of construction. The structure is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, though the gold-plated ceiling is dedicated to the Medicci’s and bears their coat of arms. Galileo is likely Pisa’s most famous resident, baptized in the Baptistery and a congregant of the cathedral.
The Tower is 200 feet tall, 55 feet wide, and weighs 14,000 tons. It’s no wonder it was sinking into the soft, wet soil and resting at a rakish angle (it’s been stabilized with 21st Century technology). It was constructed over two centuries by three different architects, with the first stones laid in 1173. There are eight stories and a belfry on top. You can climb the interior for 20 Euro.
Holland America’s excursion process was well organized. Take your tickets, which arrive at your stateroom on day one for pre-booked excursions, to the Vista Lounge and receive a numbered sticker for your shirt. When your bus is ready, your number is called and you’re off. Quick and easy. The company contracted to run the tour wasn’t as organized, at least when it came to time. We were told we’d have 45 minutes of free time to explore the city of Pisa outside just the Campo, we had maybe 10 minutes. We basically snapped our photos and got back on the bus, which was disappointing. We also stopped twice on the highway for restroom breaks, which were requested ad hoc and not scheduled. These breaks ate in to exploration time and many passengers were frustrated (including myself). At any rate, we were back at the ship only 10 minutes late when all was said and done. The tour did include headphones and the tour guides had a microphone to lead us through the sites, which was a nice addition.
Tomorrow the Noordam leave Italy for Corsica, the French island on which Napolean Bonaparte was born. As with many cruise experiences, we really only skimmed the surface of complex, ancient cultures. As Gilbert Keith Chesterton write of Rome, which applies to all of Italy, “It is foolish to go to Rome if you do not have the conviction to return to Rome.” I will return to Italy again and again, most of all to my new discovery of Lucca. For now, we’re off to explore the seaside town of Calvi.
Be sure to follow along in real time on Instagram and Twitter @fourthirtyam, hashtag #livevoyagereport. The Noordam Mediterranean Explorer Live Voyage Report landing page leads you to each day’s post.
I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. Until tomorrow…bon voyage,