Pisa is one of those places everyone has heard of – and the Leaning Tower is without doubt its most famous feature.
Near the Ligurian coast, just north of Livorno, Pisa is a perfect day trip from Florence. I took the train, enjoying every inch of the hour and half journey across the Tuscan countryside, breathing in the landscape, the villages and towns along the track, the cypress stands, the farmland shrouded in an eerie winter December mist.
I had been warned about the local hawkers and seedier side of travel in this tourist Mecca, and hardened Londoners had told me to catch a cab from the station to the top of the hill where the Tower, Baptistry and Duomo are hidden. It’s an easy few kms walk and as I found only a few rather disinterested street sellers, more intent on catching up on their local gossip than prising tourist bucks out of me in exchange for fake Prada, or Gucci handbags, I set off up the hill on foot.
I opened my eyes to the colours of the 3 or 4 story houses – deep mustards with racing car green shutters, terracotta oranges, pinks and egg-yolk yellows. I crossed the river and admired their reflections in the Arno, stopping to marvel at a 700 year old tiny church of the most ornate marble, its gables and turrets like a fairy tale backdrop for Camelot. My route took me past the lush Botanic Gardens, palms and pines beyond iron gates alongside the narrow streets to the top.
And then I caught my first glimpse. It reminded me of being in Petra, Jordan – seeing before me for the first time the magnificent Treasury building of the ancient Nabateans – one of those moments where you stop for a second in sheer awe at what lies ahead.
The Tower of Pisa (a bell tower, constructed over 800 years ago) is everything you expect it to be and more – well worth paying the steep 15 Euro entrance fee to climb all the way to the top and take in the magnificent panoramic view once you emerge from the angled, marble steps, ground down by centuries of wear and the water that is responsible for its lean. And this from someone scared of heights, with a serious back injury! I guess my fear showed as a hunky Italian policeman stopped me on the way down to ask if he could help – his keenness more akin to suitor than a member of the local Carabinieri!
Once back on terra firma, my next stop was the impressive Duomo, or cathedral. Intricately sculpted on the outside, cavernous on the inside, it’s yet another Tuscan testament to Italian art and monumental design. Just behind this massive church lies the Baptistry building – built in 1152 – almost a century after the cathedral itself. Like a holy trinity, these three famous monuments fill the square of the old town of Pisa. On its edges are cafes (serving great pizza, cappuccino and more of that wonderful chocolate gelato I had devoured since my arrival in the region) and a collection of museums. Inevitably, there are stalls and hawkers selling every gaudy Tower souvenir possible. But none of that could spoil the experience; it fitted the fact that this Tower has always been on such a comic lean (despite serious engineering works to correct its original design faults).
It might be an unfair comment from a day-tripper, but there did not seem much else to see in Pisa. I was happy to amble back to the station and take in the view once more. A man laughed and waved as I looked up and listened to him in full operatic voice, tea towel in hand, windows wide on his Juliet balcony. I saw the debris of the Christmas celebrations from the night before – empty bottles, gift wrapping, boxes that had held the traditional Panatone, and the Italian zest for life seemed evident even amongst the litter.
The night train to Florence was delayed, but somehow that didn’t matter; the trip was worth it. They say there are 1,000 places to see before you die; for my money, – Pisa is one.
Written by: Amanda Livingstone