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Updated: May 23, 2010 16:00 IST

Picnic at Pisa

SRIYA NARAYANAN
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Pisa Tower.
Pisa Tower.

Take in the unique experience surrounding a precarious 800-year-old bell tower — the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Half of Italy's charm lies in its unpredictability. After a visit to sophisticated Paris, Italy seems gloriously unruly. Young men in flashy sports cars display their bravado by cutting in front of nervous bus drivers and disappearing into the distance in seconds. We hear tour guides holler to their groups: “You can and will lose your wallets and passports in this country. Please be careful.” This leads to inevitable false alarms followed by raucous laughter.

Large smears of graffiti are visible from the toll gate that lets us go with an automated ‘Arrivederci!' and we make our way to Pisa to visit its singular tourist attraction — a precarious 800-year-old bell tower, also known as the campanile, that pretty much takes care of the Tuscan city's economy.

The Square of Miracles is swarming with tourists who make their way past dozens of souvenir shops that are bursting at the seams with I (heart) Italia caps, leaning tower mugs and copper sulphate blue magnets, most of which go unnoticed by those on their way in.

Wobbly journey

The suspense is writ large on everyone's face: how much does the Leaning Tower of Pisa lean? As it turns out, quite a lot. The structure, whose construction was halted in 1178 when it started sinking due to a weak base, has since been corrected repeatedly to keep it stable.

Despite its wobbly journey, the tower continues to do what it was built for — summoning the masses, and on a scale that would've been impossible if it had been a straightforward accomplishment.

Excited discussions begin as people go back and forth about whether or not to climb the winding, slippery staircase and they look up enviously at those who wave triumphantly from the top storey.

Like ants marching towards a giant sugar cube, camera-toting backpackers race to the place instructing their companions to take the “touristy picture”. After finding the exact spot, the subject presses his palms against the air, leans back and grimaces, creating an image of himself holding up the World Wonder.

Much like the brick wall that forms a bond with four-year-old Sally in the Peanuts comic strip, the Leaning Tower looks placid amidst all the fuss around it: an indulgent grandparent watching over hundreds of kids wolfing down ice-cream, rolling on the lawns and making impromptu purchases of T-shirts showing the likes of Bart Simpson, Snoopy and Woodstock clutching the tower.

Thanks to the ambience, the campanile is a lesson in history and culture couched in slapstick comedy, bearing witness to suspicious travellers, compulsive picture-takers and incurable shopaholics.

When we leave at the end of the day, it feels as if we are saying farewell to a dear old friend, albeit one that will outlive us all.


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