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A traveller’s guide to Pisa

Posted on | August 3, 2011 | Comments Off on A traveller’s guide to Pisa

According to a Portuguese friend of mine, when foreigners think of a monument that represents Italy , they think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa . I imagined it would be one of the monuments we have in Rome, but I’m biased toward my city.

Anyway, when she asked me to take her to Pisa , so she could see the Tower with her eyes, I couldn’t say no: we were going to see one of the most unique sights in the world and I was going to drive across the gorgeous landscapes of Tuscany to get there.

Pisa has an old and noble history, it has been on of the Marine Republics of Italy along with Genoa, Venice and Amalfi and was Galileo Galilei ’s birthplace. But its most notable feature is the world famous Leaning Tower . The tower actually is the freestanding bell tower of the nearby Cathedral (The Duomo). The Tower, the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the monumental cemetery are located in Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), a large, grass covered square.

The Tower truly is an unique sight . Pictures can’t convey the emotion of being under this tall building, seeing it leaning upon you, a mere degrees from losing its equilibrium and toppling over. Because it really leans on a side! It’s not a matter of a few centimetres. Seeing it, one wonders what kind of miracle makes it still standing. (I’m perfectly aware of the scientific reason why it doesn’t fall over, but science can be so boring!)

The square was full of tourist – it was a warm day on September 2006 – and full of souvenir stands, but the atmosphere was quiet and serene. After visiting the monuments we relaxed by cooling off laying on the soft, freshly cut grass of the square, soaking in the sun rays and gentle breeze – an experience that fits one of my definitions of “being in heaven”.

Pisa has much more to offer than the Square of Miracles, so if you are planning a visit be sure to reserve a few hours for the other sights.

What is the best season to visit Pisa and see the Leaning Tower? Tuscany and Pisa have a gentle climate , but winters can be cold and rainy. Rain can totally ruin your experience. So in my opinion the best time to visit Pisa is spring or summer. A warm autumn day can also grant you a memorable trip. Of course in summer the city is overflowing of tourists – especially in August – and there may be long queues to enter the monuments .

Visiting the Leaning Tower, the Baptistery, The Duomo and the Monumental Cemetery (the main monuments of the Piazza dei Miracoli) takes around half a day .
My advice is to not book a room or hotel in Pisa.
Stay in a bigger city – Florence is your best choice – and take a short train trip to Pisa.

Try to get there by mid morning – 10 am is perfect – and begin visiting the Leaning Tower and the Duomo: they are best viewed in full daylight and with your energies still fresh.

First of all: go under and around the tower. See for yourself how tall it is and how much it leans. Depending on the number of visitors and the situation of the tower, visitors may or may not be allowed inside the tower. If visits are allowed, by all means go inside and climb its many, narrow steps up to the top. The view is breathtaking . If there’s a long queue before entering the tower, reserve the tickets and go visit the Duomo while you wait for your turn.
Around the tower you’ll see a lot of people striking strange poses. Look nearby and you’ll see someone snapping them a photo. Many people enjoy having a picture of them taken in a pose that suggests that they are either pushing the tower down, or holding it in place.

After visiting the tower, enter the Duomo (the Chatedral). Please remind that the Duomo is functioning church. Respect the place and avoid talking in loud voice and using flash to take pictures . If there’s a celebration (happens often on Sundays), maybe it’s better to wait for celebration to be over before visiting the Duomo. Inside the Cathedral there are artworks of some of the most celebrated Italian painters , a wooden pulpit masterfully crafted and many examples of fine Romanesque architecture.

Take a short break for lunch, the area is full of bars, restaurants, fast foods, kiosks offering every kind of food, from the traditional Tuscanian cuisine to pizzas to sandwiches. Don’t forget to taste a strong Italian espresso.
After the lunch break you can rest for a while on the gardens, or immediately go back to your visiting. The Baptistery and Monumental Cemetary are waiting for you.

The Baptistery is a large Romanesque structure. From its tall top you can take wonderful pictures of the Duomo, of the Tower behind it and of the surroundings. Inside the Baptistery there’s a curious echo effect. Try to sing a few low notes while standing close to a wall, they’ll turn in beautiful chords. The Battistero, like the Duomo, is still used for religious functions, so you may have to wait for them to be over before being allowed to enter.

The Cimitero Monumentale is a huge cemetery building, filled with art. Don’t miss the collection of Roman sarchophagi and the frescoes by the painter known as the “Master of the Triumph of Death “.

Lining the square there are two important museums, often skipped by visitors. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Museo delle Sinopie . Both host wonderful works of art coming from the Chatedral and the Cemetery.

After visiting Piazza dei Miracoli, you can go back to your train or stroll around the town: there are many less known, but not less beautiful, monuments and churches in Pisa. If you decide to explore Pisa, look for the beautiful Piazza del Cavalieri (Knights’ Square), a medieval square with many historical buildings.

While Pisa is graced by some of the most beautiful monuments of ancient times, it’s a little known fact that it also hosts an important piece of modern pop art. It’s Tuttomondo , an extremely large mural painting by Keith Haring . Look for it between the Train Station and Corso Italia.

Pisa is a student city: it hosts many important schools and universities, chief among them the famed Normale di Pisa. But Pisa’s students are fully dedicated to their studies. The town’s nightlife is not as lively as that you can expect from your average students town. Nights and evenings tend to be quiet, with students cooling off in bars and pubs.