Pisa is quintessentially a university town, and its only claim to fame is the Leaning Tower.
Ah, the travails of over-exposure! We've seen the tower too many times in newspapers, magazines and on television, for it to ‘wow' us when we are actually there! But Pisa is not just the Leaning Tower. The Campo Dei Miracoli (the Field of Miracles) is an undulating stretch of green lawns, in the shadow of the tower.
It's filled with tourists clicking the de rigueur watch-me- prop-the tower of Pisa photo! The signs pleading to people, to stay off the grass, are ignored by the mass of humanity. It took over 100 years to build the tower and when the final storey was added in 1274, it was already leaning! A variety of reasons have contributed to this, says our guide Giovanni, the sandy, marshy soil in this part of Tuscany and the river-bed below. The design was flawed from the beginning and, in between, construction was halted for half a century because of the battle between Pisa and neighbours like Genoa and Lucca. We are surprised to hear that it was used as an observation post by the Germans during World War II. Though Pisa endured heavy allied bombing during the War, miraculously the Duomo and Tower were spared! The tower underwent a hi-tech engineering make-over lasting almost 11years (at a whopping $ 27 million), which was completed in 2001, and is now declared safe for the next 300 years.
The Tower is actually the bell-tower of a complex, which contains the Gothic Duomo or cathedral. We are enthralled by the huge bronze doors with scenes from the life of Christ. Inside the Duomo are many large paintings and a special bronze lamp. This is called the ‘Galileo's lamp', as it is believed that Galileo figured out the law of the pendulum by observing the movement of this lamp. The Baptistry across the Duomo has an elaborate pulpit carved by Nicolo Pisano and amazing acoustics. The dome is a harmonious mish-mash of different styles and we understand that it was built over a long period of time.
The huge octagon in the centre holds the holy water. We hear someone sing and the notes bounce off the ancient walls, reverberate and then flow away lending an air of mystery to the dark interiors. On the western side of the Duomo is the Campo Santo, a cemetery built over earth brought back by Crusaders from the Holy Land. This is a tranquil and serene spot; a respite from the hustle and bustle of the Field of Miracles.
The Pisa Marathon is being run today, which starts at the town of Pontedara (the headquarters of the Piaggio Company famed for their Vespas) and is run over a total distance of 42,145 km. It's a surreal scene; the runners against the iconic backdrop! We reach tourist heaven when we see the carnival of souvenir stalls, lining one side of the complex filled with kitschy delights. Every possible interpretation of the leaning tower ranging from quirky, tilted mugs (just hope you don't spill that tea!) to snow-globes and T-shirts in a gamut of sizes and shapes line the stalls. For a few euros, these are worth the entertainment value, back home.
We walk through the Piazza dei Cavalieri (Square of Knights), which used to seat the Knights of St Stephen. They used to defend the coast from pirates and invaders. There is a medieval tower of Hunger here with a gruesome story. According to legend, Count Ugolino was imprisoned here for treason and left to starve with his children, whom he ate! Pisa used to be a superpower in the medieval ages, until it was defeated by Genoa in 1284, and its port silted up.
Steeped in history
Its only claim to fame remains the leaning tower and its ancient university. Pisa is today a quintessential university town. We soak up the history of the ochre and orange buildings of the University of Pisa, established in 1343 (where Galileo studied and taught).Giovanni tells us that about 40 per cent of the 100000 inhabitants of Pisa are university students! There are Vespas and cycles everywhere and a bohemian vibe.
The Arno is much broader here than in Florence and there's not a single boat in sight. The Lungarno (the two sides of the river) lined with tower houses and beautiful palaces are a great place to meander through. The Luminara Festival is held in June every year, a celebration for Pisa's patron saint. All the lights along the Arno are dimmed at sunset and many candles are lit. There is a plethora of activities organised with people in colourful Renaissance costumes and the evening ends with a display of fireworks. Along the Arno is a marvellous piece of Gothic fantasy like Rapunzel's castle, which is the Santa Maria Della Spina. This is fashioned like the spines from Christ's crown (brought back from the Holy Land by the Crusaders) which it formerly housed! We catch sight of the grey, forbidding vestiges of the medieval city walls dating back to the 16th Century and it's easy to imagine Galileo walking past as we turn a corner…
How to get there
Take a train from Florence to Pisa Centrale Station. There is an excellent network of buses in the city. You can also fly in to Pisa's Galileo Galilei Airport from domestic and international airports.
Best time to visit
Between June and December.
Where to stay
Though most tourists make Pisa a day trip, to really soak in the magic of this medieval city, stay there at least for a couple of days. There are apartments and hotels to suit all budgets which can be booked on the internet.
What to see
Besides the Leaning tower, the Duomo and the Baptistry, walk through the Piazza of the Knights, the University quarter, see the Santa Maria Della Spina Church. Visit the ancient Botanical Gardens and walk along the river Arno.
Souvenirs with the motif of the leaning tower, pasta and local wine.
(The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai)