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December 11, 2010

France and Itay: Briançon and Pisa

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, Italy, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 10:36 pm

The Baptistery in Pisa’s Piazza del Duomo

With our bikes protected by slabs of cardboard and strapped Beverly Hillbillies-style to the top of the Renault Kangoo’s roof, we headed east out of the French Alpes.  From Les Deux we traveled along a classic Tour de France cycling route through the Alpes heading towards Italy.  Our destination for the day was San Gimignano in the Tuscan hill country.  At 573 kilometers, this would be the longest leg of our summer’s road trip.  Along the way, we’d collect (hopefully) G&C from the Pisa International airport.  It was destined to be a lengthy, complicated day.

Becky takes her turn supporting the Leaning Tower

Despite the odds, when we neared the Italian border, the cardboard clad Oakie Kangoo was comfortably on target to reach the Pisa airport in time to meet G&C’s flight.  The timetable suffered a setback when we reached Briançon, France.

Briançon has several Vauban structures.  These strongholds are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of the “Fortifications of Vauban” group.  With the UNESCO designation, we were contractually obligated to visit, or so it seems.  Of course the Vauban sightseeing in Briançon put us behind the timetable.  We’d now have to exceed the Hillbilly Kangoo’s operational parameters to meet G&C’s expected arrival time.  At least G&C were aware of our flake factor.  They couldn’t be too surprised if we were late.  Besides, we suspect that they secretly dreaded being seen in the hick mobile.  Any delay would be a plus for them.

Back in the car we crossed over the border into Italy on the way to Torino.  The road itself was a feat of engineering.  In the 340 or so kilometer stretch of highway from the French border to 80 kilometers short of Pisa we logged 97 tunnels.  Most tunnels and viaducts are named.  A sign at the mouth of each tunnel or the beginning of every raised road section provides the name and the length of the structure.  We added up over 70 kilometers of tunnel, about 21% of the total road distance.  We didn’t fastidiously track the viaducts but their number and length is comparable to the tunnels.  Long stretches of the road were almost entirely tunnel and viaduct.  Building a highway on flat grounds is just so passé to the Italians.

Collegiale Notre Dame Church In Briançon, France

As we emerged from the tunnels and bridges, the cell phone rang.  It was G&C.  Their flight from the UK had been delayed as a result of the heavy thunderstorms hammering the exposed sections of roadway in Liguria and Toscana.  We’d now have time, plenty of time, to reach and explore Pisa before G&C’s jet airliner’s tires marked the airport runway.

Becky has an unexplained hair event at a most auspicious location in Briançon. Is this evidence of the supernatural?

Homer the GPS was quickly reprogrammed and we headed directly to Pisa’s Piazza del Duomo.  Piazza del Duomo is otherwise known as Piazza dei Miracoli or the “Square of Miracles.”  The plaza is the home of Pisa’s most famous site, the Leaning Tower.  Pisa’s Piazza del Duomo is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sitting on the edge of Piazza del Duomo inside the city’s walls is Torre pendente di Pisa, more commonly known by English speakers as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  It is a popular destination.  It must be, we had plenty of opportunities to buy authentic fake Rolex watches on the walk in.  (Posted signs indicated that it is illegal to buy fake designer merchandise; we didn’t see any notices saying that it is illegal to sell the same items.)  Fortunately the piazza is grand and the tourists spread out easily.  And truly nothing can detract from the Pisan Romanesque grandeur of the three dominant structures, the baptistery, the cathedral or duomo, and, of course, the tower.

Inside Pisa's Duomo (HDR)

Though the tilted tower gets most of the attention, all three of the marble clad structures in the piazza have been beautifully restored and glow impressively.  There was time to wander the manicured grass in the changing light, inspect the insides of the buildings, and capture the moment in a typically excessive number of pictures.  As the day progressed, the tourists and the fake watch vendors filtered away.  And after we finished our good, cheap pizza dinner you could almost call the piazza quiet.  We could have stayed longer in the warm evening air, but G&C’s flight was now due in.  It was time to head out to airport.

It was after 11 pm when we collected our Southampton friends and headed towards the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano.  On dark wet and winding roads, we blindly followed the course Homer the GPS chose.  This time Homer needed some adult supervision.  Homer’s directions through the Tuscan hill country are unlikely to be the most efficient way to get to San Gimignano from Pisa.  Perhaps Homer decided we’d like a scenic route, but that wouldn’t help us much at night.  (Next time we’ll pack night vision goggles.)  The remote road route had a definite “Paddle faster, I hear banjos” feel.

It was close to 1 am when we reached the outskirts of San Gimignano.  In an industrial park, Homer, loaded with our B&B’s GPS coordinates, directed us to turn onto a feral dirt road at the end of a cul-de-sac.  Homer must know where to go, we thought.  A sign confirmed that Podere Montese, our B&B, was in this direction and we turned the Kangoo onto the dirt track.  Off the primary dirt lane, driveways periodically led up the hill.   None of these driveways appeared to head to our B&B, at least as far as we could tell in the dark.  Back and forth we searched, but the collective confusion inside the Kangoos’ cab remained.   Where was Podere Montese? For the Nth time, we crept out on the dirt lane back towards the industrial park contemplating our next move.  Should we find another place for the night?

As we moved one last time to the exit of the dirt lane, another car came towards us.  We pulled the Hillbilly Cadillac to the side of the road half expecting to be roosted by the local security apparatus.  But instead the car was carrying our B&B hosts, Annalisa and Davide.  By chance they were returning from a late night out, Italian style.  It was fortuitous that our paths crossed.  We followed them up one of the steep driveways that we had repeatedly dismissed and were soon at the B&B.

With the next morning’s light, we’d discover just how nice Podere Montese’s setting is.  The B&B sits amongst the vines on a hillside looking towards San Gimignano.  It’s a good thing our hosts happened by.  We’d have regretted missing even a single day at Podere Montese.

The full set of pictures has been posted to Picasa.


  1. […] visited.  First time visitors to Tuscany usually visit Florence.  Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa are next in line on many tourists’ agendas.  For sure that’s what the guidebook authors […]

    Pingback by Italy: Montalcino « Another Header — December 15, 2010 @ 6:47 am

  2. […] Fortifications of Vauban (France, 2010) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — December 15, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

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