On my way there, I had the fortune of being upgraded to first class on the first two segments, which made the journey a whole lot more pleasant. Things weren't as rosy for my fellow seat mates, however. On both flights, my neighbors each experienced beverage mishaps. The first was hit by a clueless passenger while boarding, causing her hot cup of coffee to undergo Newton's first law of motion. The second knocked over a whole glass of water before takeoff due to apparent lack of spatial awareness, leaving me grateful he hadn't ordered wine instead.
Many hours later I checked into my hotel and promptly passed out. I had to force myself to get up when late afternoon arrived so as not to throw my body clock completely out of kilter. I ran to town in search of food and sightseeing. Most restaurants do not open before 8 or 9pm, which meant the culinary pickings were slim. However, I did stumble upon a small, hole-in-the-wall place that served a flat bread (Estiva) with a cheese I hadn't heard of: squacquerone—a soft, tangy, and quite perishable cow cheese—topped with grilled zucchini and eggplant. Pisa quickly restored my faith in Italian food after the unfortunate assault on my tastebuds from the previous month's visit to Rome.
As is normally the case after crossing a sizable number of time zones, I woke up early the next day. Not being able to go back to sleep, the best remedy for me is often to go out on a run. This time I ran away from town on a nice trail along the Arno, raised like an embankment well above the river level. The tall mountains surrounding the Pisa valley hide the morning sun for a while, and the sky to the east that morning was a beautiful pinkish purple.
The conference was held in the Palazzo dei Congressi, and from the 1986 photo the organizer presented, little in the building had changed over the years. By the time I booked my hotel, the only accommodation available was two miles away. This meant my daily commute was a long, pleasant walk. The only downside was that there really wasn't much that was close to the hotel.
Later in the day after returning from the day's proceedings, the mountain range was calling me. I answered and ran towards it. The river trail deteriorated little by little the farther I got from Pisa. Just three miles in, it started to occur to me that the trail could benefit from something we in America like to call trail maintenance. Was there an equivalent term in Italian? At one point the overgrowth was so dense, one had to tunnel through a thicket of corn-like 8ft-tall shrubs. And four or so miles into my run, there was hardly a trace of a trail at all, despite signs to the contrary.
Foolishly, I hadn't packed my race vest, and with the heat, by mile 7, at the foothills of the mountains, I was desperate for water. I managed to find a cafe that sold only 1.5L bottles. Not being able to run with a bulky bottle nor wanting to waste it, I guzzled it all down, fearing I'd probably succumb to hyponatremia.
What made matters worse is that I hadn't had much to eat all day and felt sluggish trudging up the steep slopes. The trails were a bit maze-like, and I often had to consult my phone to make sure I stayed on-course. At one point I encountered a frantic cyclist who had lost his way and needed help getting back into town. The wonders of technology were at work—helping an Italian find his way in his own country. Even with the GPS guidance, I still managed to take a few wrong turns, one of which ended up being rather fortuitous, for it took me to a giant shrubbery of blackberries that revived my anemic body and gave me a burst of much needed energy.
Descending back towards civilization I was treated to a gorgeous sunset, and a few miles later, just as darkness was starting to set in, I came across a pizzeria, which even on a week night was nearly full with local patrons from the neighboring villages. I saw the complete absence of tourists as a great sign of an amazing meal to come, and indeed it was. The pizza and beer were divine, making the last 5 miles back to the hotel much more enjoyable.
The country roads have no bike lanes nor even a shoulder, making running at night rather dangerous. On a few occasions I had to jump into the tall grass to avoid vehicles that failed to see me, but the full moon helped a great deal.
This travelogue unlike most of my others consists entirely of photos taken with an iPhone. Even though I packed all my camera gear for this trip, the inconvenient location of the hotel and the lack of a car meant I had packed it all for naught. Apple has really made a huge improvement in camera quality with the 6s, though, and I took full advantage, making me reconsider my bulky 5D Mark iii as a necessity on future trips.
As the walks to the conference and back became more routine throughout the
week, I had much opportunity to reflect on my experiences in Pisa. I really
enjoyed the food and lifestyle, but I would like to make a formal plea to
Italians: trade in your scooters and stop smoking. Sì, la vita è
bella, but it would be even more bella without the dreadful pollution and lung
busting effects of these habits. And while you are at it, add some bike lanes
and walking trails—you'll love it!