Living La Dolce Vita – An Italian Holiday


It may be apparent from previous writings that I have a wanderlust.

I’d never been abroad until I was 20.

So I’ve been making up for it since. 

Covid put a stop to our foreign travel. But this has been the year we got back on a plane.

Our 11 year old requested Italy to gorge on pasta, pizza and gelato. Sounded like a plan.

My last trip to Italy was in 2006. Four months after we met, a long weekend in Rome had been the first foreign excursion for me and the future Mrs. J. A trip that was an eye opener into the carnage of Roman city traffic. Sure, the ancient buildings are spectacular, but its the traffic that you need to watch out for. 

Should you ever visit Rome, don’t think that you’re safe using a crossing.

This is just an opportunity for Roman drivers to use you as a mobile chicane. Sure, some will stop. But many will carry on regardless, swerving round you. At least the cars are easy to see coming.

A phalanx of mopeds are the hidden menace, darting out from behind the other traffic. It was like a real life game of Crossy Road. 

Best approach is to be very patient, wait for the slightest gap and run. The drivers are experienced at the game, they’ll (probably) miss you. 

Fortunately, this year’s location of Viareggio wasn’t so intense.

The crossings are still a random factor of ‘will they or won’t they stop,’ but there’s a lot less traffic. A new feature of the idiosyncrasies of Italian roads was that we constantly found random cars parked in places they shouldn’t. On crossings, sticking out into traffic, on a pavement. Appears to be an unwritten rule that as long as you leave your hazard lights on its fine to abandon your car wherever you like.

Viareggio is located on the Tuscany coast. Dramatically sited with the jagged Apuan Alps rearing up a few miles inland.

The seafront has a broad pedestrianised esplanade, lined with restaurants, high end boutiques, jewelers and more. Behind that there’s miles of golden sand.

If only you could see it. 

I’d not come across the Italian approach to beaches before. The few metres where sea meets sand is public but the rest of the beach are concessions, known as “Bagni,” granted by the local authorities. In Viareggio they stretched for miles, each Bagni a uniform size, covered in ordered rows of closely packed parasols and sun loungers and offering a beach bar / restaurant. An entry fee is required. 

So while the actual shoreline is public, you have to pay to access a Bagni to reach it. Unless you’ve done your homework and can locate the narrow patch of sand that isn’t a Bagni. From which you can reach the shoreline and are free to walk the thin strip of sand between the parasols and sea. 

Although our hotel had a deal with a Bagni that gave us free access, we only went the once. It wasn’t that busy, but when you’re used to the freedom of being able to pick out your own spot and wander at will, the constriction of having neighbours right next to you on all sides, and endless rows of parasols in all directions blocking any view of the sea, felt very limiting. 

Luckily for us, our grand old art deco hotel had a pool along with a relaxing garden shaded by pine trees

Even better, the pool never had more than a handful of people in it.

Great news for our water baby, who with many years of swimming lessons behind her is now, at the age of 11 a stronger swimmer than me.

(Though I did beat her in the swimming a width of the pool underwater contest. Not that it’s a competition. Unless I’m winning.)

Pre holiday research told us that its compulsory to wear a swimming cap in Italian pools. Apparently, for hygiene reasons, and even for someone like me who is lacking in follicles. I looked forward to rocking the matchstick look; pale white body topped with a colourful tight latex wrapped head. Despite the hotel website and poolside warnings no one was wearing them.

Our swim caps remained unused. Fashion’s loss. 

Despite some of the iniquities of Italian beaches and transport system, it is a wonderful place.

The people were warm and friendly. The hotel had a touch of the Grand Budapest about it, but this one is still in its pomp. The food turned out to be more fine dining than we had expected. Not a single slice of pizza served all week.

Plenty of pasta though and desserts that demanded gluttony.

Our daughter was so impressed with the breakfast on the first morning that by 2PM that afternoon she was already drooling in anticipation of the next morning. 

Each February Viareggio hosts one of the largest carnivals in the world. There are banners along the esplanade with pictures of huge floats towering over the buildings. Definitely something to go back for. 

We had planned to take the train to Florence and wallow in a day of cultural indulgence. On the coast in Viareggio it was hot but an hour and a half inland Florence was another 10°F hotter. We decided that sweating our way round the Uffizi didn’t sound so great. 

We did make it the short distance to Pisa.

With helpful instructions from our hotel we took the bus. A simple act but one which the Italians have added complications to.

Firstly it’s necessary to carry ID in the form of passport / driving license, its a serious business getting on a bus.

We were sent to a Tabacchi (literally a tobacconist) to buy the tickets and once on the bus there’s a machine to validate the ticket. 

Which is where the instructions failed me. I quickly surmised that the ticket didn’t match the size of the slot. In lieu of any available instructions or clue as to what to do I stood there contemplating the futility of life until a local took pity on me. To fit the slot the ticket is folded in half. Simple. Yet so exasperatingly stupid that they don’t make the ticket fit the slot without the need to be folded. Or provide any instruction to do this. 

It’s possible that this is because it provides the bus companies with an excellent source of income through fines.

We were fortunate that our hotel told us what to do. A French family having bought their tickets from the driver sat behind us. They asked how we got ours. Despite the fact the driver isn’t supposed to sell tickets he had taken pity on them.

Or to see it another way: ripped them off by charging them 50% more than we paid. 

As we waited for our bus back from Pisa we saw a family ejected from a bus and issued with fines for not having valid tickets. It was like the seven stages of grief. We watched them go through shock, denial, anger, bargaining and pleading. Five minutes later as our bus arrived, they were still at it. So we never got to witness acceptance. Then again, I don’t think they’ll have reached it.

The leaning tower gets all the publicity.
But the other buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) are stunning. 

Having been closed to the public from 1990 to 2001 while the lean was stabilised, the tower is open for visitors to climb. 

Depending on which side of the tower you’re viewing it from the lean goes from; not that bad, to:

“…Are you sure you should be letting people up there?”

Entering the tower the slant of the floor is even more pronounced.

The second most noticeable thing once you’re inside is: its hollow. It’s purpose is a bell tower, so inside its just one long tube with a staircase spiraling up through the walls. 

The official website says there are 273 steps to the top and its 58.36m tall. Other sources say 296 steps and 55.86m. You’d think they’d know by now. I was too busy perspiring to verify. What I do know is that climbing those stairs is like a carnival fun house. The unique positioning of the tower means that as you loop upwards the stairs are constantly varying in pitch so you go from walking upstairs but with the sense you’re angling down to going up at an unnaturally steeper angle. To mess with your head a bit more, 800+ years worth of feet have worn the steps into uneven forms. 

At the top you’re rewarded with the view of the piazza and Pisa.

There’s a reassuring metal grille around the edge to stop the lean pitching you off the top. As we entered the tower a staff member made an announcement not to touch something. We didn’t quite hear what, we thought it might be bats. That was good, we like bats.

Getting to the top the realisation was that he said bells. They are in very easy reach but everyone was well behaved the day we were there. I’m sure some people succumb to the temptation to give them a push. 

Temperatures that day were pushing 100°F. The breeze at the top was refreshing but the effort of climbing up and down however many stairs it is left us with sweat emanating from all parts and pooling unpleasantly in places it really shouldn’t. It wasn’t pretty.


Fortunately the tower was last on our itinerary. There seems something inappropriate about entering a cathedral as a hot sweaty mess.  

Those other buildings are a visual overload, especially inside the cathedral.

Consecrated in 1118 which in itself is a staggering fact.

Everywhere you look, inside and outside, there are intricate and stunning details. 

The Baptistery of San Giovanni

The Baptistery is much plainer inside but has a double dome structure which apparently gives it exceptional acoustics.

The big sign requesting ‘Silence’ put paid to testing them out.

And although there are regular demonstrations by staff we weren’t there at the right time to hear. 

The Camposanto is a large oblong shaped building enclosing a grassed courtyard. It’s a cemetery, with tombs lying under your feet marked by inscribed stone slabs.

Over time it also became a museum with a collection of sarcophagi and other artefacts. 

The inner walls are lined by huge frescoes dating from the 12th to 15th century.

An allied bombing raid in 1944 destroyed the roof and damaged many of the frescoes. Some have been restored and are back in place…

…With work still ongoing to restore others. 

The most impressive is The Triumph of Death cycle by Buonamico Buffalmacco and Francesco Traini.

This features three scenes depicting the Stories of the Holy Fathers, the Last Judgment and Hell and the Triumph of Death.

Its a real mix of inspiring and grimly fascinating. 

Despite being hugely popular with tourists most of the piazza is covered in grass – on which it is strictly prohibited from encroaching on.

While the paths are busy with tourists, it gives a sense of scale to the buildings with so much space being free from the camera wielding hordes. 

Many of whom who are engaged in the time honoured tradition of posing as if they’re holding up the tower. Or pushing it over. Or contorting themselves into precariously balanced shapes to pretend they’re kicking it over, leaning on it, etc. 

The French Dad, making the best of things.

Hope the photos give a sense of how impressive the Piazza dei Miracoli is. It is appropriately named. 

One last photo.

Whether these shoes are impressive or not I’ll let you decide. It definitely comes under NSFW. Unless you want a visit from HR.

We visited Viareggio’s; Galleria D’Arte Moderna E Contemporanea (I reckon even the linguistically challenged can work that one out).

A small but impressive collection that was running an exhibition on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio:

Late 19th / early 20th Century aristocratic Italian poet.


Journalist and WW1 hero.

And judging by his shoes:


Pixilation graciously provided by a grant from The Italian National Endowment for the Humanities, and Viewers Like You.


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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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Famed Member
September 4, 2023 5:03 am

Another great read JJ!

I haven’t made it to Pisa, but you make that I feel I’ve missed going there. Maybe I will on my next trip to Italy (in ???)

Don’t know if you saw, but I ABSOLUTELY stole that picture of those shoes for my social media!

Famed Member
September 4, 2023 8:25 am

Great read on a holiday (even though it’s not your holiday), JJ. I especially liked your descriptions of the bus tickets and the hotel breakfasts … hilarious!

I imagine you’ve been to the Uffizi before, but if not, it’s a must-go next time.

Mt, great job as always with the captions.

Famed Member
Online Now
September 4, 2023 9:30 am

I had no idea the tower had been fixed or that you can climb it now. Great description of walk up. Sounds like I’d need Dramamine!

Napoleon of Birds
Noble Member
September 4, 2023 11:16 am

What a cool vacation! Italian architecture is truly stunning. And, uh, those are some shoes, all right. I had to take a moment to get over “The National Endowment for the Humanities”.

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
September 4, 2023 12:15 pm

“A new feature of the idiosyncrasies of Italian roads was that we constantly found random cars parked in places they shouldn’t. On crossings, sticking out into traffic, on a pavement. Appears to be an unwritten rule that as long as you leave your hazard lights on its fine to abandon your car wherever you like.’

Makes me think of South Philly, which, come to think of it, is a historically Italian neighborhood. So I guess that checks out.

Sounds like a great trip!

Famed Member
September 4, 2023 12:31 pm

Makes me jealous! So much history in one trip.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
September 5, 2023 8:38 pm

Sounds like an awesome trip!!! And now your daughter is an age where your travels are creating long-lasting memories that she will always cherish! Glad you could have and enjoy this opportunity together as a family.

Famed Member
September 6, 2023 9:51 am

My wife and I were also in Italy in 2006, our only time there. Can confirm the crazy drivers in Rome and the big cities, particularly the minibikes. We noticed that a large amount of the parked cars had dents and damage to them and were not surprised.

Was also in Pisa for a day and loved your coverage of the other buildings in the square that don’t get the attention, but are amazing.

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