The Swiss Family Carlson Tans on the Beach!

Or at least tries to become slightly less pasty white.

We left Pisa in the morning after a weak hotel breakfast and made our way to the train station.  We accidentally ended up walking all the way there.  We intended to take a taxi, but we had a couple of postcards to mail so we took what was supposed to be a quick detour to a postbox and then we would jump into one of the ever-present taxis by the river.

But there were no taxis to be found. And then we looked at our Google Maps and saw we were halfway there already so we might as well just keep on walking. The children were completely baffled. Here they were, with a chance to ride in a car and we were messing it up for them. Parents are so cruel.

We got to the train station and tried to buy our tickets at the main counter, but, no, you don’t actually buy those kinds of tickets at a ticket counter. You go over to the magazine stand.  You take your kids, weave through the stack of toys and plastic kid-trap crap, and buy your tickets while you buy your copy of People Italia.

Our train was scheduled to leave 3 minutes after we bought the tickets, so we ran for it, pulling the kids behind us.  But when we got to the platform there was no train to be found and it looked like we had 15 minutes to wait.

The platform was full of people – mostly tour groups being led by someone waving a flag or fan above their heads; holding a clipboard in their other hand. And we found out there were pickpocket teams in operation.

Here’s how it went down. I got the kids, their backpacks, and one suitcase onto the train. Mark got his backpack and the Big Bertha suitcase on the train. Then this guy got in front of Mark and asked me if he could sit with us. To which I replied no. While our attention was focused on that seat, the guy behind Mark tried to get his hand into Mark’s pocket to get his wallet.  Thankfully, he failed due to Mark’s incredibly deep pockets and the fact that he was aware of his surroundings.  However, that attempt soured Pisa for me and I was in a bitter mood, clutching my purse and barking at the kids to keep their bags closed, for most of the train ride.

My mood was still pretty sour when we arrived in Viareggio, just an hour or so north of Pisa along the coast. In Viareggio we got into a taxi and went 10 minutes up along the coast to Lido di Camaiore, the beach town where we were staying.

Lido di Camaiore’s streets are lined with palm trees. It felt just a little SoCal.

Lido Beach 3Nice wide boardwalks. Kids riding bikes and skateboards. People hanging out on benches eating ice cream and gelato.  Off to the right are all the hotels. Off to the left are the entrances to the beach and the restaurants.

We got beach passes as part of our hotel stay. If you have a condo or you are just coming for the day you have to buy a pass from one of the many beach shops off the boardwalk. This isn’t unusual. In New Jersey you need to pay for a beach badge to stay on the beach. The money goes to pay for lifeguard and beach cleaner salaries. The same is probably true here.

However, in Lido you get assigned a “spot.” It’s kind of a cabana area complete with sun umbrella, chairs, and side table. And it’s your spot. No one else can sit there. It’s helps the kids know exactly where their stuff is when they need it and you don’t have to lug all your crap down from the hotel room, down the street, and across the sand.  It’s just right there.  That is really lovely.

And for my friends with OCD, it keeps everything in nice straight rows.

IMG_2613 IMG_2614Also, the other hotels and cabana shops have different colors of umbrellas. Also handy for finding your way around the forest of umbrellas after coming up out of the sea.

And it is the sea. It’s the Ligurian Sea, which is a little pocket in the north part of the larger Mediterranean Sea. It’s kind of surreal thrill as an American to put my toes into a sea. We don’t have seas in America. We have lakes. With a sea you still have saltwater and waves so it’s practically like being at the ocean.

Lido Beach 2I will say this about the food. It was not as good as in Pisa. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but several of the fish dishes noted that they were made with frozen fish and/or seafood and the gnocchi was certainly not housemade.

The one exception was the focaccia. There was a “topped focaccia” restaurant right around the corner from our beach entrance. Topped focaccia is sooooo goooood!  You take your basic focaccia, top it with something – pizza sauce and cheese or thinly slice potatoes, butter, and rosemary or zucchini and tomato slices – and bake it in the oven. It’s almost like a deep dish pizza. We ate lunch there both days we were at the beach and E couldn’t see why we wouldn’t just eat there for dinner, too.  Well, it was tempting…

The first day we were there the sea was full of great surfing waves. There was one spot in particular that had some really perfect waves and there were about 30 surfers hanging out there.  The next day there were hardly any waves at all, but that brought out the paddleboarders, the windsurfers, and the kitesurfers. IMG_1652

The 6 year old wanted to see if we could hook him up to a kite. I suggested we try paddleboarding instead. And learning how to swim.

There is a long pier that divides the beach area neatly in half.  It arcs out into the sea a good 30 meters and provides a great view back at the beach.

Lido Beach 1

IMG_1654It’s fun to see the flat expanse of beach suddenly give way to jutting mountains.  You can go hiking in the morning and then come on down to jump into the sea and have dinner on the boardwalk.

Here is another shot of the mountains – the view from our hotel room balcony where we dried our swimsuits and sipped glasses of wine after the kids went to bed.

There is also nice little bar/coffee shop at the end of pier. It lends itself to being a very romantic and quiet place to catch a drink with your significant other. Which explains some of the looks of panic and fear when we walk over with our kids.

IMG_1650It’s also windy.  Which makes it hard to have good hair.IMG_1649I do wish we had stayed a few more days, but since school was back in session already we couldn’t spend our accustomed week on the sand and in the surf. Even though it was such a short time I managed to feel that same level of peace and calm that I usually feel after a week at the beach in New Jersey.  I got a load of writing done in my notebook sitting on the beach, watching Mark and the boys play in the water. Seeing H really loving the water and seeing E perfecting his body surfing technique.

I can’t wait to go back.

The Swiss Family Carlson explore the Piazza dei Miracoli

This is Part 2 of our visit to Pisa. For Part 1 and more about the city please click here.

Besides the food, the reason to go to Pisa is to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s one of those things that every single person in the world has heard of and seen in books, magazines, and movies. I was prepared to be disappointed. Nothing that famous can possibly live up to all the hype, right?

I was so very not disappointed.


The first thing to notice is how white it is. It is blindingly white. Actually, the entire square of the Piazza dei Miracoli is the white of bleached bones. It’s a startling change from the Tuscan yellows, greys, and browns of the buildings and streets leading up to the square.

IMG_2442It’s even more amazing when they are framed by bright blue skies.

The Tower is deceptively hard to photograph.  Your brain really wants it to be straight so you find yourself tilting to make it show up straight in the photo. Plus it is TALL. It’s 30 meters tall, so if you want a good picture of yourself trying to hold the Leaning Tower of Pisa you have to back up a good long ways and dodge other tourist trying to do the same thing.

You can visit the top of the Tower now. It was closed for a couple years as the building and preservation committee held debates and made plans on how to stabilize everything.  But now it’s all open, for only 18 Euros per person. Well, it’s open if you are over the age of 8. The Powers That Be are so concerned about the angle of the tower, the number and height of the stairs, and lack of OSHA approved safety equipment that they have forbidden anyone under the age of 8 from being in the Tower. And if you are over the age of 8 and under the age of 12 you must hold an adult’s hand, which I’m sure Tweens everywhere just love. If you are under 18 you still have to have an adult with you, even if they are your horribly uncool parents.

The Leaning Tower isn’t the only thing in the Piazza. There is also the Baptistery, the Cathedral, and the Camposanto Monumentale (the cemetery).  To go into all or any of the buildings in the square you must buy tickets in the museum off to the side of the square. (The Cathedral is free with purchase.)

The Cathedral with the Tower behind it.

Next to the Tower is the Pisa Cathedral, also known as the Duomo. It dominates the plaza. In fact, this used to be known as Piazza del Duomo before the name was changed.  It is a huge church with 5 naves.  And it is OLD. They started construction in 1064!  The architecture is supposed to be in the Romanesque style, but as you will see from the interior, it feels very Byzantine.

The side of the Cathedral. Very majestic.
The front entrance. The doors a brass and made by Giambologna.

Beautiful mosaics over the entrances to the Cathedral. These are the first hint of the Byzantine influence on the architecture.

The main interior of the Cathedral. The marble interior has some amazing acoustics for two boys who like to hear themselves makes noise.
There is a lot of detail in the marble. Note the striping and use of the natural color to make patterns.

IMG_2495 Every bit of the Cathedral’s design has been agonized over. And then there was a fire in the 1590s that destroyed the ceiling, the doors, and other interior decoration so they redecorate!

The fire gave the builders and the community a chance to add other details and feature the art of the time. It was almost beneficial that this happened during the Renaissance, after all, this was in Italy, arguably the focal point of the Renaissance.

The church was able to recruit works from some of the most noted Renaissance artists of the day.  Plus the Medici family, big donors to the reconstruction effort, got to have part of their coat of arms put into ceiling.  In gold.  Because they are Medicis.


One thing I mentioned to E to get him interested in the church as more than just yet another church on our ABC tour of Europe (besides all the amazing art) was this incense chandelier.

IMG_2500Legend has it that church services were a tad long and tedious for Galileo so he’d stare at things in the Cathedral, like the lamp (not this one – the original one is now hanging in the Camposanto). He stared at it sway back and forth for weeks and eventually developed his pendulum theory.  That did get E to sit down and watch it for almost exactly 2 minutes before he started reading the book he’d brought along for just such an emergency.

This the pulpit where the priest delivers the gospel. How can you not feel weird and intimidated to get up there and speak? Well, the boys wanted to climb it and have a look around. Thankfully the stairs are clearly roped off.

IMG_2499The pulpit is original to the church and it survived the 1595 fire. It’s not in the correct spot, however. It was packed away during the repairs and not found again until the 1920s. It was put up in a different, and arguably more prominent, spot shortly after it was found and cleaned.

There are 9 intricately carved panels that arc around the top. Each panel is flanked by one of the prophets.  The panels tell the story about the Annunciation, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, the Crucifixion, and two panels about the Last Judgement.

IMG_2494 There isn’t much stained glass in the Cathedral.  A fact that struck me as odd at the time.  When I think of a Cathedral I think of rows upon rows of stained glass and a huge rosette dominating the back of the church with panels behind the altar framing images of Jesus and strategically lighting the priests and officiants.

But here there are very, very few windows, yet there is plenty of light.

What they do have loads of is art.  Mosaics, paintings, wood inlay, carvings.  Art is everywhere.IMG_2492I’ve been to many art museums in my life, but I don’t think I have ever seen so many pieces of Renaissance art in one place before.


The paintings line the walls. There have to be about 20 of them all around the church.
White marble with black marble and gold inlay and trim. It’s a wall that surrounds the altar area and helps to section off the main worship area from the side naves.

These are all wooden mosaic pieces that line the walls under the paintings and above the bench that lines the walls.  The boys were totally intrigued by these and kept walking back and forth looking at them.

I was taken by the altar area of the Cathedral.  The walls surrounding the altar are painted by masters, but the space right behind it is a huge mosaic.


A close-up of “Christ in Majesty.” It is a mosaic of Jesus flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist in the apse of the Cathedral. It original to the Cathedral and survived the fire.
Every inch is painted with saints and angels, keeping an eye on the priests.
You can see how they are just starting to embrace some modern pieces of art into the Cathedral. The pulpit and the front altar are all more recent additions.
The apse area is flanked by two black marble angels holding large candles.

There are several naves around the edges of the main congregational area. One of which houses the body of Saint Rainerius, the patron saint of Pisa and of travelers.  I think I’m going to need to light a candle to him to ensure smooth traveling. I sure do have a lot of future travels planned.

IMG_2513 We went back out into the sunshine and were greeted by the sight of what I thought was the most impressive building in the plaza: The Baptistery.

IMG_2460It’s a wonderfully round and white building in the 12th century Romanesque style. It is dedicated to John the Baptist, with a sculpture of him at the top like a cherry on a sundae.  The building was started by one gentleman, but was finished by the Pisano brothers in the 14th century.  It is actually just a little taller than the Tower of Pisa, but doesn’t seem to have the same tendency to lean as it has less clay in its foundation.

The inside feels rather empty even though there is quite a bit in there.

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The boys were searching for something to do or something interesting to see and ended up finding a staircase going up to the second floor.


It was a great view and gave me a much better idea of the floor plan and I could see the amazing tile behind the altar and inside the baptismal font.IMG_2479Again, there are very few windows, but there are more here than in the Cathedral.

Just at the edge of the Piazza dei Miracoli is the museum. It has some wonderful modern art exhibits.

IMG_2463And also these wonderful sketches.

These are all the sketch drawings that were under the paintings in the Cathedral. At some point the decision was made to removed the paintings from the wall and hang them on floating panels in front of the wall so if the walls shifted and settled or there was an earthquake the paintings would not be damaged. They were every so carefully lifted and as they did so they found these remarkable sketches underneath. The sketches were removed and conserved and are now on display in the museum.

You do actually need to go into the museum because that is where you buy your entrance tickets to the rest of the buildings in the Piazza. So go, pay the extra 3 Euros and see it.

The whole Piazza is marvelous to walk around. Vendors are everywhere selling belts, sunglasses, gelato, miniature leaning towers, leaning coffee cups, and other souvenirs.  I think the plaza has always been teeming with life. All three buildings were being constructed at roughly the same time, so the main plaza would have been overflowing with builders, masons, artists, horses, food vendors, priests, and gawkers.

The Piazza dei Miracoli won’t take you an entire day. Well, it could if you really wanted it to, but it is a good half-day excursion not including lunch and a snack at the end. If you are lucky you can see some beautiful brides and handsome grooms getting wedding photos taken.  And there is just something wonderful about wandering around the grounds with a cone of gelato. Frankly, the mint chocolate chip gelato was the highlight/goal of the day for the boys.

IMG_2530We went back to the Piazza dei Miracoli each night we were in Pisa. It got to the point where the boys groaned when the Tower came into sight and H said, “Isn’t there anything else in the entire city to see except this?”

Not really, son.

But! To the north are fantastic beaches that line the Mediterranean and we were on our way to explore them next!

The Swiss Family Carlson go to Pisa!

Yay! Italy!  And I get to check another country off my list!

At the beginning of the summer Mark came home and said, “Hey! I had a paper accepted to a conference in Pisa!”

I looked up from my iPad and said, “When are we going?”

Events were set for the beginning of September and we decided to take an additional two days to go to a beach. In America we usually take a week and rent a house at Long Beach Island, NJ. (Another fantastic place to visit for sure. I highly recommend it and it’s an easy 5 hour drive from DC.)  We weren’t able to go last year before we moved to Basel and so we definitely needed to have some beach time this summer.

Traveling there was going to be quite an event all on its own.  We needed to fly into Florence, take a taxi from the Florence airport through herds of Italian drivers who are all demonstrating that driving “laws” are really more driving “suggestions” to the Florence train station, so we can then hurry for a train that is supposed to leave in 2 minutes, but in actuality doesn’t even arrive until fully 10 minutes later causing child #1 to say, “this would never happen in Switzerland.”  Once we were finished in Pisa we would need to take another train up the coast to a town called Viareggio and a taxi up to Lido di Camaiore, where we were staying.

But first PISA!  Everyone has heard of Pisa. Home to the famous Leaning Tower in the Piazza dei Miracoli!  Birthplace of Galileo Galilei, Antonio Pisano, and Leonardo Fibonacci, father of the incredibly cool Fibonacci number sequence! (Seriously, it is cool. Check out this youtube video.)

Pisa is an incredibly old city.  Virgil in the Aeneid makes references to Pisa that imply the city is not only established, but is important. Virgil was still working on the Aeneid when he died in 19BC.  So, Pisa was a large and important city before the time of Christ. That is one ancient city, people.

That look on E's face is, "There is pizza everywhere!"
That look on E’s face is, “There is pizza everywhere!”

We were staying in The Hotel Leonardo, a deceptively posh sounding place about 500 meters to the south of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was one of the hotels the conference had reserved for their speakers around the Old Town section and not too far from the conference site.

It sounded fine, but I found the room slightly stale smelling and the beds hard. I was game to stay though. After all, I’d been camping before when I was a teenager and the beds weren’t any harder than the ground. By the middle of the second night I remembered why I don’t camp anymore.  The breakfast wasn’t much to speak of either. A bare-bones affair of bread, hard croissants, provolone cheese and bologna meat, and various condiments with a coffee machine that extruded instant coffee from somewhere inside its works.

The inside of the restaurant we ate in that first night. It was perfect.
The inside of the restaurant we ate in that first night. It was perfect.

Thankfully, there were restaurants galore right nearby. Our first night we tried a little hole-in-the-wall pizza and pasta place and were blown away. The food was delicious and fresh and plentiful. The next night we ate within view of the Tower at sunset and had the most amazing pasta ever. Mark had a tagliatelle with a wild boar ragu while I had tagliatelle in a traditional bolognese.

Our final night we once again couldn’t resist the pull of the Tower and found a place just around the corner from it. I had pappardelle with a wild hare ragu while Mark went the more traditional route with a tortellini covered in a light marinara. Every meal was the best pasta meal we’d ever had and this die hard spaghetti girl has a whole new appreciation for wider noodles.

Pisa is a city for people who like to wander. Wander this way and you’ll find a cute open air market.

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Wander that way and you’ll stumble into a 12th century church!

This is Saint Pietro in Vinculis. It kind of ambushes you once you walk beyond the cafe next door.

IMG_2561San Pietro was built between the years of 1072-1118 and was run by the Augustinian order.

IMG_2556   The frescoes and other art is from the 13th century and there is even Roman sarcophagus! IMG_2559


IMG_2563 I was confused about this guy. The full name of the church means "St. Peter in Chains," however this guy isn't in chains and doesn't really look like St. Peter. A closer look and the ability to read the brass plaque tells me that this is St. Stanislaus Kostka. I am still confused.
I was confused about this guy. The full name of the church means “St. Peter in Chains,” however this guy isn’t in chains and doesn’t really look like St. Peter. A closer look and the ability to read the brass plaque tells me that this is St. Stanislaus Kostka. I am still confused.

We wandered out of the church and down the block until we got to this bridge over the River Arno. Doesn’t it just scream “Italy!”?


This side of the river feels a little more “artsy.” A little more “Left Bank of Paris.” IMG_2567

Street cafes are just about every 40 feet. The buildings are just right for a movie and I’m sure a few have been shot around here.IMG_2569

There are statues of famous children of Pisa in just about every square. IMG_2571

IMG_2564In fact, I think they expanded the definition of “piazza” just so they could say that the statue of Niccola Pisano is in a piazza.IMG_2574 At the end of the walk we decided to sit down at a cafe, me for a spot of tea and the boys for donuts.  Donuts are not popular in Switzerland. You have your jelly berliner, but it’s not quite a donut.  My boys want them risen, not filled, and covered with a chocolate glaze.  Lo and behold they spotted what looked like “real” donuts at a cafe right off a huge piazza.  So, what else could I do but buy them each a donut and a milk.

His first donut in over a year.
His first donut in over a year.

After a long and lovely break at the donut cafe we walked back up towards the river and the Palazzo Blu.

IMG_2577The Palazzo Blu is an old house right on the River Arno that has been turned into a weird combination of art and history museum.  The basement has some archaeology exhibits that highlight old Pisa.

These are two of the maps on display along with some amazing pottery samples that they uncovered nearby.

The second and third floors are interiors exhibits.  I swear the dining room looks just like Mark’s parents, but larger.

Then on the top floor is art! When we went they had an exhibit on Paladino and it featured his illustrations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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And then there were …. Roman coins? Shouldn’t those be in the basement with the archaeology?IMG_2590 IMG_2589Pisa is great for a day of slow wandering and drinking all things Italy. You look and watch and figure out what it means to you. Then you stop and sip coffee.  And after you wandered around for the whole day to stop again for one of the most delicious dinners you’ll ever have.

And, yes, a few places did look at us odd when we only ordered one thing and not an antipasto, primo, secondo, and dolci, but they got over it and we enjoyed ourselves. By the end of our stay I did cave and started ordering an antipasti of melon with prosciutto. It turned out to be H’s favorite thing to eat!  E succeeded in eating pizza for all except 1 meal (excluding breakfast), so there was success all around.

And before you think I forgot to go to The Leaning Tower of Pisa, we did go.  The whole thing was just too much for this post.  Really the Piazza dei Miracoli where the Leaning Tower lives deserves its own post. (Which I promise will be posted later in the week.)

But just to tide you over….