It was definitely a little wonky. Directly in front of me was Europe’s, possibly the world’s, most famous bell tower: a lopsided vision of Romanesque columns. All around me, people adopted strange yoga-like poses to get the obligatory snapshot of them pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The iconic monument, currently tilting at an angle of around four degrees, is Pisa’s crowning glory, but this pint-sized city doesn’t rank highly in most people’s ideas of an Italian mini-break. The majority opt for Rome, Venice or Florence – the latter being just 80km down the road. But Pisa proves that good things come in small packages.
Set on the banks of the gentle River Arno in the north-west of Tuscany, Pisa was once a mighty maritime super-power. For several hundred years from the 10th Century, it controlled the coast and dominated rival cities such as Genoa and Venice, a period that brought great wealth and extravagant architecture. But the glory days came to an end in 1284 at the hands of Genoa during the Battle of Meloria.
Like most visitors, I headed straight to Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) to the north of the city, a collection of old monuments and religious buildings. The star attraction is, of course, the Leaning Tower. Its backstory is fascinating. Built in the 12th and 13th Centuries upon a soft base of clay and sand, hence the tilt, it came into being after a woman left 60 coins in her will to build the city’s grand cathedral a bell tower.
Work halted after just five years with only three storeys completed and remained so for almost a century until the 56m-tall structure was finally finished.
and here’s me, trying to style my hair before the photo…later we found out that this one is way better than that photo we were trying to take
Every 15 minutes, 45 people can climb to the top – a head-spinning ascent up a spiralling staircase (waits of more than two hours are not uncommon, so book in advance).
I emerged into the daylight to a sea of terracotta rooftops, stone bell towers and the snowy Apuan Mountains in the distance. Yet the tower is just one component of Piazza del Duomo. Directly next door is the cathedral itself and, across the green, the tiny Baptistery of St John, where the doors are locked and silence demanded every half an hour. Hush descended over the domed interior, a handful of people gathering around the hexagonal pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano in 1260. The doorkeeper slowly walked into the centre, cleared his throat and proceeded to sing: a wave of soulful notes that each bounced around the chamber for 12 seconds.
It would’ve been easy to spend my entire time in Pisa, exploring every corner of Piazza del Duomo, but a whole city awaited beyond. I roamed the botanical gardens, and window-shopped along Borgo Stretto, stopping to sip a strong espresso at one of the outdoor cafés.
Nearby was the medieval Piazza dei Cavalieri (Square of the Knights), once the city’s cultural and political heart. Dominating the square of palaces was a statue of a triumphant warrior Cosimo I by sculptor Pietro Francavilla.
An endless stream of cyclists darted in and out of the surrounding side streets. Tucked behind one such street, in a blink-and-miss-it corner, was Il Montino, a backstreet pizzeria that claims to be the original in Pisa. It started out as a simple bakery in 1859 but branched out into pizzas during the Second World War when soldiers travelling north from Naples spoke of the famous cheesy snack.
At least that’s how the story goes.
But this is quite boring, don’t you think?
What other things you should definitely see there during the day?
- See the Other Leaning Tower
Did you know that Pisa is home to another leaning tower? Well, the most known torre pendente is the one located in Square of the Miracles, but also the bell tower of the Saint Michael Church leans. This interesting building is situated in a beautiful green area, viale delle Piagge, near the Arno River, five minute by walking from the centre of Pisa. If you want to admire a leaning tower without crowds, you have to come here. It might not be as beautiful as the other, but it has its charm.
- Visit Anatomy Museums
The Museum of Human Anatomy opened in 1832 by Tommaso Biancini under the title “Anatomical Cabinet.” The cabinet quickly grew to house over 1,600 specimens and the collection holds fetal skeletons, skulls, anatomical statues, prepared specimens, and wax models. Mixed in with the anatomy collection are some Colombian and Egyptian mummies and the death mask of the great wax modeler Paolo Mascagni.
Another such collection can be found next door at Via Rome 57. It is the Museo di Anatomia ed Istologia Patologica or Pathological Anatomy Museum. Dedicated to what can go wrong in nature, the collection includes “a dog with six legs, a cat with two heads, and a baby chick with two heads and four legs.” Nearby, at Viale delle Piagge 2, is the Veterinary Anatomy museum, with even more anatomical models – this time of animals. No doubt Pisa holds many other collections waiting to be discovered in the shadow of the tower.
- Walk around the Botanical Garden of Pisa
The first university botanical garden in Europe, built to serve as an “office” to legendary botanist Luca Ghini of Imola. Home to Ghini’s herbarium, the first of its kind, the exciting new idea to dry plants and carefully illustrate them so they could be studied and utilized throughout the off-season was just one of the many innovations that took place within these garden walls.
Now located at via Luca Ghini 5 in Pisa, the garden has been moved twice, once in 1563, and then again in 1591. These relocations have required the title of “oldest botanical garden” to be split between Ghini’s garden and the Botanical Garden of Padua, established a year later but still flourishing in its original location, making it the oldest botanical garden still in its place of origin. Split hairs aside, the Pisa garden is a phenomenal place to lose yourself in the delicate art and science of botany. Operated by the University of Pisa, the grounds include fountains, ponds, a library, greenhouses, herb gardens, one of the oldest iron-framed hothouses in Italy, and the former seashell adorned botany institute, in use from 1591-1595.
For centuries, the botanical garden has been collecting illustrations, artwork, seeds, rare and endangered specimens, and scientific journals, Along with the 148 flower beds and ancient Ginkgo biloba trees planted in 1787, some of the garden’s most impressive treasures include their Pharaonic collection—examples of specimens found in the ancient Egyptian tombs—and their impressive aquatic plant collection, some of which are so endangered, they are no longer found in any natural environment. Also known as the Orto Botanico dell’Università di Pisa, the gardens offer free admission to students, children and seniors every weekday morning, and the gallery of natural objects should not be missed.
- Have a Lunch under the Oak of the Witches
According to one local legend, witches once gathered at the 600-year-old oak. They danced wildly atop its gnarled branches, transforming the plant into a stage for their chants and ceremonies. Supposedly, their rituals stunted the tree’s growth and warped its shape, causing it to reach outward rather than upward.
The old oak inspired another story, too, this one more familiar to children around the world. Carlo Collodi once sat beneath its behemoth branches while penning several chapters of The Adventures of Pinocchio. It inspired the scenes where the famous puppet meets the Cat and the Fox and where he is later rescued by the Blue Fairy after being hung. As such, one of the tree’s other names is Quercia di Pinocchio (Pinocchio’s Oak). The tree towers within an area that celebrates its Pinocchio connections with other sites related to the story.
Italy’s government officially recognizes the legendary tree as a National Monument. Because of its large size and distinct shape, it also appears as a reference on NATO maps.
- Burn Calories Walking Around the Natural Park of San Rossore
Pisa is a green city surrounded by gardens and parks. The largest natural park is San Rossore, which stretches from the town to the coast. There are several ways to explore it, by walking or cycling but the most romantic way is to discover the park on a horse-drawn carriage.
Head back to the city center and see…
- Church of San Francesco
No church in Pisa is comparable to its spectacular cathedral famous for its white-marble façade. But the town has a lot of churches which deserve to be seen, like San Francesco’s church, a 17th century marble church with stunning frescoes in the choir, as realized by Taddeo Gaddi, one of Giotto’s disciples, and the tomb of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, made famous by Dante’s Inferno. The church is avoided by tourists, and you can easily visit it without spending time in lines. A curious info: Cimabue’s Maestà, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, was originally made for this church.
- Visit the Giardino Scotto Nearby
As I have already said, Pisa is full of parks and gardens. One of the most beautiful is Giardino Scotto, a peaceful garden inside an ancient fortress built by Florentines on 1440 during the second occupation of the city. This place is usually used by locals for walking, running, studying or simply to rest in the sun. The entrance is free, and, during the summer months, the garden hosts an open-air cinema and few music festivals.
You may end your day there, or! When you have car within, you should definitely also visit…
- Certosa of Calci
If you have time and want to see a beautiful place far from tourists, take your car and reach the Certosa of Calci. Many areas of this spectacular and enormous place (there are 1,500 rooms) are unfortunately close to the public, what is visible today is only a small portion of this building. The area hosts the Natural History Museum, an antique pharmacy and, recently, also opened an aquarium.
- And End Your Day in Piaggi Museum
Another unknown location near Pisa is the Piaggio Museum, located in Pontedera, a small village in the province of Pisa. The museum was inaugurated in 2000 and occupied 3,000 square meters from the company’s former tool shop in an industrial complex in Pontedera, where Piaggio started its production in the early 1920s. The museum explains the history of Piaggio and the development of Italian industry, economy and society from the period.
And now when the sun slowly sets down, it’s time for the dinner and an evening walk afterwards…but that will be the main topic of the next article! Have a great day!
This was the first time of me visiting Pisa…I have visited it several times in the summer, but then it was always in the evening or night sooo you’ll see those photos later.
Here are just a few of them:
:DD I had a friend named David that time and I wanted to buy that magnet for him.