For those who are differently inclined, there’s more to this town than the Leaning Tower

The first thing that catches my eye in Pisa is not anything ancient or historical but a striking, modern graffiti in subtle colours, on the walls of the former convent of Sant Antonio. Called Tuttomondo or the whole world, the artist was Keith Haring, an American graffiti artist known for his large murals. A chance meeting with a student from the University of Pisa was the inspiration for this piece, which the artist completed in 1989, months before his tragic death from AIDS. A woman with a baby in her arms, two men holding up a dolphin representing human relationships with nature, two bodies cutting a serpent probably, representing man defeating evil forces, the theme of the mural is peace and harmony.

There’s more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower. Pisa used to be a Roman port and then a powerful maritime republic. In the early 1400s, it was conquered by Florence and experienced an artistic and literary renaissance under Medici rule. In the 19th century, many artists, writers and poets flocked here. Dickens, Zola, Shelley all have succumbed to Pisa’s charms. The city has had its share of troubles — it was bombed 53 times during the World War II. More than 50 per cent of the city centre was damaged and rebuilt. Pisa is today a charming university town with a youthful vibe, students on cycles, and crowded cafes. Terracotta roofs, a labyrinth of winding narrow lanes and pretty-as-a-picture piazzas — Pisa’s old town is atmospheric.

We walk with our guide Vincenzo past Pillory Square, where prisoners used to be exposed to public ridicule. Vincenzo draws our attention to the Lungarni, the two sides lining River Arno with its stunning town houses called case torii in Italian, built by powerful families in the Middle Ages. Rich merchants vied with each other for power and fame and built these high narrow medieval skyscrapers. In fact, a popular medieval saying used to be ‘rich as a Pisan’. “Pisa used to be the Manhattan of the Middle Ages,” says Vincenzo. He draws our attention to special wooden arches that are pointed just like Pisan war ships and which support the weight of the stone buildings. The local yellow ochre stone called verrucano was the favourite material for construction and each family tried to make their building taller than the neighbour’s. The houses had to be inside the city walls and this lead to tremendous vertical development, leading to more than 10,000 towers in ancient times. Most of the houses were so narrow that the famous Tuscan sun did not even enter them; many families built wooden terraces and porches outside the houses so that they could soak in the sun.

History whispers emanate from every corner of the town. Walking on the picturesque Borgo Stretto (Narrow Street), one of the oldest streets here, I enjoy the play of light and shade under ancient medieval arcades, looking at palaces of noble families, now converted to swish shops and restaurants. There is the Moorish-looking church of San Michele with tiers of marble arches, gables and portals, originally built on the land of an ancient Benedictine monastery. “That’s the house where Pisa’s most famous son Galileo was born” says Vincenzo, as I walk past a faded building, now housing the Cafe Settimelli. My jaw drops, as I look up at the plaque that confirms what he has said. Our coffee break is at nearby Cafe Frederico Salza, which dates back to 1898, with old-fashioned service and a faded elegance. Their speciality is Brutti Boni cakes made with ground almonds and filled with pistachio, hazelnuts and pine nuts, there’s even a leaning tower made of stiff jelly!

We walk through a craft market filled with bric-a-brac, jewellery, and arts. An old couple sells exquisite objects carved of olive wood; another stall sells rock art, cats in wicker baskets painted on stones. The ochre square Piazza delle Vettovaglie, a medieval square (once called Pig’s Square because it used to have a pig market) is home today to a colourful daily market with porticos on all sides, housing small cafes, shops, and bakeries.

The most photogenic of all the squares here is the Piazza del Cavalieri, also called the square of seven streets, studded with Renaissance buildings. This used to be the historical, political and social centre long ago. The famous Medici architect Giorgio Vasari remodelled it in the 16th century and today, the sight of the grey and white stencilled facade of the Palazzo della Carovana just takes my breath away.

History is very much alive in Pisa — the building still houses a university founded by Napoleon in 1810, whose famous students include Italian poet Carducci and physicist Enrico Fermi. By the time we walk to the Campo dei Miracoli and get our first glimpse of the iconic Leaning Tower, we have seen an enchanting side of Pisa that few tourists bother to explore.