|Pisa's Cathedral Square (or Square of Miracles). Here you can see, from left to right, the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower. Why does the tower tilt? Because it was built on ground too soft on one side to support its weight! (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
The old year is coming to an end and so is this retrospective journey. Events at home were getting steadily worse, and it became clear that I would have to return to England sooner than planned. The final leg to Rome would have to wait until another day.
I said goodbye to Margarethe, then Benji walked with me through Lucca's early-morning streets to the bus station. In less than an hour I was in Pisa. It's a magnificent city with a really ancient feel, and, like Florence, is bisected by the river Arno, the most important Italian river after the Tiber. I hadn't realised how big Pisa was — it has a population of 200,000 if you include all the suburbs. I also hadn't realised how much there was to see apart from the cathedral with its famous crooked campanile. I could have spent a lot longer visiting Pisa's numerous historic churches and medieval palaces, but I had a train to catch.
In a few hours I had arrived in Milan. I had some time to kill before catching my next train, so I walked from the Art Deco and Fascist-inspired railway station into the heart of the city. It was dark, but no longer pouring with rain as it had been in Pisa. I passed La Scala opera house, then entered Cathedral Square through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-storey double arcade which was constructed between 1865 and 1877 and is one of the world's oldest shopping centres. I'd seen something similar before in Naples — the Galleria Umberto I, which opened in 1890. As you might imagine, the retailers here are the famous names of jewellery and haute couture. I found it all rather alienating and intimidating, especially in the dark. I felt dwarfed by the austere and monumental architecture, and unsettled by the fabulously expensive luxury items displayed in the shops — the icy, inhuman touch of wealth and commerce. The Camino seemed far away. Milan is, of course, a world capital of style and fashion, and I definitely did not fit in, what with my weatherbeaten pack and my mud-stained boots and the distant look in my eye.
|The rooftops of Paris from the Butte Montmartre.|
I took the overnight sleeper to Paris. At the French border we were woken (that is those of us who were asleep — it was a cramped, uncomfortable compartment) by customs officers and border police, who examined our passports and identity cards. A few people were turfed off the train. Border controls were obviously getting more stringent because of the increasing European refugee crisis and extremist threat.
I did manage a surprising amount of sleep, and before long it was early morning in Paris and I was walking across the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République — soon to be shown on millions of TV sets as the national focus of mourning after the Paris terror attacks of 13 November (also my birthday, as it happens). I checked in to a cheap hotel just off the Rue Saint-Denis.
For the rest of the day I simply walked — through the Marais and the Place des Vosges, along the Rue de Rivoli, by the Louvre and in the Tuileries Garden, up to Montmartre and the magical snow-white Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. I admired the view of Paris from the Butte Montmartre, astonished as always at the lack of skyscrapers. I watched the artists, buskers and street performers in the Place du Tertre. And I spent a long time wandering round Montmartre Cemetery, discovering the graves of Berlioz, Dumas, Heine, Stendhal, Truffaut and Zola.
|The Musée d'Orsay on the river Seine. The bridge you can see is the Pont Royal.|
Before taking the Eurostar train back to London the next day, I spent a few wonderful but exhausting hours looking at the paintings and sculptures in the Musée d'Orsay — which is housed in the Gare d'Orsay, a former railway station on the left bank of the Seine. Here you can find the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (these were originally held in the Jeu de Paume gallery on the other side of the river, where I'd first seen them in the early 1970s).
|The Main Hall of the Musée d'Orsay. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
I can't even begin to describe the treasures contained in this museum, so here's just a brief visual taste . . .
|Dr Paul Gachet by Vincent van Gogh. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
|Alone by Toulouse-Lautrec. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
|Apples and Oranges by Paul Cézanne. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
|Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
|Monet's The Magpie. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|
|Arearea by Paul Gauguin. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)|