After nearly five hours of transportation and sightseeing on Saturday, you might think that Joonho and I would use our Sunday, like last weekend’s, to rest. Instead, however, we decided to undergo four more hours of travel for another daytrip, this time to Pisa.
Pisa is a large town located on the Arno River in northern Tuscany, just downstream from Florence and near the region’s port of Livorno (known as Leghorn in English translation). Having prospered in the medieval era, as shown by its conquest of Sardinia and extensive trade links with the Orient—at times surpassing even the influence of mighty Venice itsel—the city-state soon fell into decline after defeat by the Genoese navy in the 1284 Battle of Meloria. Once the city fell into Florentine influence under the Medici dynasty, however, it underwent a cultural revival, with its cultural and educational institutions fostering such great minds as Galileo Galilei, among others. The town is now famous largely for its central square, the Piazza dei Miracoli, from which rises the world-renowned Campanile, or Leaning Tower of Pisa, upon which I will elaborate later.
Many of my friends who have traveled to Tuscany before have told me conflicting things concerning Pisa. “Sure, the tower is a must-see,” they say, “but it’s just too touristy. It’s grungy and you should move in and out as quickly as possible.” I evaluated these concerns in my head before visiting and they seemed to make some sense. After all, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is arguably Italy’s most famous attraction, and there were bound to be throngs of fanny-pack-toting, sweaty, and loud tourists (not to say that I’m completely innocent of such a label, at times). With these crowds come incessant street vendors attempting to sell the shoddiest products at unreasonable prices, as well as rip-off, unauthentic Italian restaurants catering to American and foreign tastes.
Luckily, however, these warnings did not deter us. The trip up from Scarlino was beautiful, with vistas of the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea and the peaks of Elba and Corsica in the distance on one side and the rolling, golden hills of Tuscany on the other. As we arrived into the city, we immediately saw the medieval walls surrounding the main Piazza, which obstructed our view of the buildings inside. I was actually quite pleased with this effect, as it heightened the first impact of the tower, cathedral, and baptistery when they suddenly popped into view. Thus, after pushing our way through the souvenir stands surrounding the gate, we were not disappointed once inside. Immediately appeared the baptistery, a circular building begun in 1153 and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The ornamentation was exquisite, not only, like the Orvieto Duomo, for its colors and patterns, but also for its intricately sculpted forms and perfect rotational symmetry. Its top roof was half restored—I appreciate how part was left original so the new part appears even better. Next was the main cathedral, the Duomo di Pisa (basically every Italian town has some sort of a Duomo). Constructed, like the baptistery, of shiny grey marble, it was begun in 1064 by the architect Buscheto. Its cross-shaped form, columned façade, and general well-preserved state were thoroughly impressive at first. Around these two structures was a very well-kempt grass lawn on which couples sat and children played.
There is a reason, however, that these two landmarks are not perhaps as well-known as they deserve, and it stands right next to the cathedral. Rising from the ground, sparkling in the sun was the undisputed highlight of the town, symbol of Italy: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It took two centuries, from the 12th to the 14th, to build this seven-story tower. A foundation set on unsolid ground caused it to lean at one point to 5.5 degrees, but, after stabilizing efforts in the 1990s, it currently stands at a four degree lean which will ensure its preservation for at least a few more centuries. A campanile, the structure functions as a bell-tower for the cathedral, but, according to rumor, that hasn’t been its only use—apparently Galileo used it to drop cannonballs to test the theory of gravity. It’s one thing to see a photo of the tower but you will not fully appreciate its eerie beauty unless you see it in person.
To go inside the tower, you must reserve tickets for a certain timeslot—everything in the next two hours was sold already when we approached the counter, so we bought tickets for later in the afternoon and sought to eat lunch. And thus we walked down the tourist street in search of a good restaurant, agreeing to proceed a little ways as the first restaurants nearest to the piazza were likely to be no good. The rule, as I informed Joonho, was that if a restaurant had photos of food on its menu, it would probably not be any good. We eventually surmised that a restaurant on a side-street would be even better, away from the crowds of tourists and vendors, and picked one of which I currently forget the name. After a great lunch of prosciutto, pesto gnocchi, carpaccio, and spaghetti Bolognese, Joonho and I emerged an hour later ready to climb the tower.
As we hopped back in line, the first thing we noticed was the increased military presence around the tower. A tank and three men in uniform with guns stood at the entrance, screening all visitors with a detector. We made it through clearly, though the increased protection served as a biting reminder of the sad state of world affairs and the ever-so-real threat of terrorism in Europe—an attack on a monument as iconic as the Leaning Tower would be disastrous. We soon moved on, however, once we entered the tower and really observed how much it was actually leaning. Walking up the stairs was a quite odd experience—Joonho quipped that he felt as if he were “tipsy on the tipping tower.” Because of the tower’s lean, as we ascended the spiral staircase it sometimes felt as if we were actually walking downwards with gravity’s blessing, at other times as if we were walking up doubly-steep steps—not to mention the rotational force of the stairs pulling us into the center. The ruts in the marble steps were so deep to put the Academy Building’s to shame—between those, the slightly musty interior atmosphere, and the holes in the wall just narrow enough to sneak a rifle or arrow through, I could really feel the almost 900 year old age of the tower.
Once we reached the top—disoriented, although not nearly as tired as we were last week after Orvieto’s clocktower—we observed the most beautiful view of the trip yet. From the bell chamber we could observe the distant Apennine Mountains, the red-roofed city of Pisa, the Arno river, the Tuscan plains, and even a glimpse of the Mediterranean. Despite the high fence encircling the balcony to prevent people dropping any more cannonballs or the like off the structure, we managed to take some nice photographs. Although we caught some Latin inscriptions on the bells, we regrettably did not have time to translate and soon retuned back down, a descent just as spatially confusing as the climb up.We also observed the text-book image of a Capitoline Wolf (metal statue of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, with their she-wolf mother): although not the original, which is featured in Rome’s Musei Capitolini, it was nice to spot such an iconic image from middle-school history class from above.
After exploring the interior of the cathedral—truly a remarkable sight, featuring a high roof, impressive altar, relics, and golden mosaics—we decided to partake in the most important part of anyone’s day at Pisa: the photo shoot. Walking around the piazza for a full ten minutes, we finally selected a site suitable for its lighting and apparentness of the tower’s lean. Our goal was simple—all we wanted was the classic tourist photo of us seeming to push or pull the leaning tower. This was no easy task, however, and we struggled for minutes to find the perfect body position. Jumping, pushing, receiving, kicking, squatting—we tried everything. We even asked the neighboring couple to take a photo of us, which actually turned out really well. My respect for these expert tourist photobombers surely increased after such a gauntlet.
Speaking of tourists, I have to admit that the place was indeed kind of a zoo. All along every paved space were multiple couples and children attempting to take the same types of photos. People were lifting each other up, standing on road-posts, and even posing their dogs—now that’s commitment! I was particularly impressed with the diversity of the visitors: many Indians, Chinese, and Latin-Americans in addition to your typical German backpackers, French children, and Russian honeymooners. It emphasized the world-renowned nature of Pisa’s architecture—a reputation reflected by the fact that the Pisa airport, serving a metropolitan area of only 200,000 people, has direct flight connections all across the world. Everyone wants to see the Leaning Tower!
Thus I must disagree with all my friends that Pisa is a tourist trap. Having explored many famous sites all over Italy and Europe in general, I would say that the Leaning Tower definitely ranks among the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Sure, the town was a little touristy—but this is only deservedly so: the tourists would not come if the city weren’t so beautiful. There’s a reason that the Leaning Tower is one of Italy’s national symbols—a monument on par with France’s Eiffel Tower, England’s Big Ben, or Germany’s Brandenburg Gate. The trip was well worth the four hours of transportation there and back.
After we returned to Scarlino, we grabbed a quick dinner of pizza (get the theme: Pisa, Piazza, Pizza?) and returned to our room to watch the France-Switzerland game. A very interesting game, for France had multiple powerful attempts hit the bar, only to be rejected by the merciless pipe. I’m writing this way too late for our 4:45 departure tomorrow morning back to Orvieto, so I better go to bed. Until next time!