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Pisa. Pizza. Piazza
Natalya Popova

8am-ish on a Sunday morning (a brave, if not heroic) start, we stepped out on a route of exploration of Pisa. "We" - my 18-old son Alex who was keen to get some travel experience prior to his gap-year project in Romania, and myself - keenly assisting him.

Italy is full of wonders – every minute spent here is treasure filled with discoveries at every step. Each place can be linked to a famous historic event or a person…

We arrived in Pisa from Bournemouth late on Saturday afternoon. Even though the airport was just twenty minutes bus drive to our hotel, and this a further twenty minutes walk to the Tower, we did not get to see much of the city that night because of the short February evenings.

8am in the morning was the time at which we expected to see Pisa in its full beauty yet free from tourist crowds heading towards the famous Leaning Bell Tower, which Italians proudly call one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In an attempt to save our elbows from working hard though masses of pilgrims, we have chosen a quiet route alongside the River Arno. Believed to be founded by the mystical Greek King Elope, Pisa has been a famous heroic megapolis throughout the spiral of its history: Etruscan settlement (5th century BC), Roman municipium Portus Pisanus (2nd century BC), a medieval manufacturing centre, the Marine Republic which became one of the most important naval powers of the Mediterranean in 11-12th century, a magnificent noble city in the 17th century, an ancient University city now. Can one be happier other than being in the city like that?.. Even at 8am-sh Sunday morning…

On our way to the river we got overtaken by an organised group of bicyclists. By the time we crossed the river we met three joggers, two canoeists and one fisherman. What a lot of sporting activity for a Sunday morning in Pisa! - very impressive. Also, obviously the river promenade looked popular with the dog owners and their dogs. We did not happen to see any of them but their presence was evident on the pavement revealing the size of each dog (hope not the owners..) while there seem to be no signs threatening with fines for non pooper scooping.

Despite obviously being inhabited, the city somehow did not create an impression of being a big busy place. Obviously February is not the pick of the tourist season here.
Reality is not always quite as you picture it.
From the second glance, the city looked somehow.. shabby .. if I may say..

On our way to the Tower we walked through some tired looking streets where old frescoes on walls neighbouring with graffiti (which might make some dramatic photo shots though). We even saw one partly destroyed but inhabited house. Somehow this chaotic look of the city intrigued: is it because a lack of government funding or a deliberate attempt to extend the list of World’s Wonders, or…?

This makes one wonder if the famous inclination of the Tower is a monument to someone’s carelessness never bothered to put it right.... and the Tower is still up only due to tourists’ joint efforts of holding it up while posing for pictures…

At one time it was thought that the Tower was designed to lean for the world’s amusement. However, the truth is that the inclination of the Tower started shortly after construction began in 1173 and was due to the marshy soil of coastal Tuscany. The first recorded measurement of inclination was made in 1248 by Pisano. The tilt now is 10%, and works on sustaining it never stop. The last work to secure the foundation was undertaken in 1992. Scientists believe the Tower will survive for another 400 years to adorn the main historic square Piazza del Duomo.

The Piazza strikes the visitor with its wealth and beauty. The whole complex consisting of the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campanile (Bell Tower) and the Cemetery seems to be like another world on its own separated from the rest of Pisa by a lush green lawn and the old city wall. Some even compare it with St Marco’s square in Venice. The Cathedral is outstanding and is famous for its magnificent pulpit which took Pisano ten years to design and build.

The Piazza is one of the "must see" places in Italy. "Must do" - is a climb up stairs to the top of the Tower – to take pictures and to put things into perspective. Tickets can be bought on the premises but places are limited. It is even recommended to buy tickets in advance on-line.

So many people walked up these stairs, including one Galileo Galilee on his way to performing his gravity experiments to prove that : "Eppur si muove ("And yet it does move"). What was he thinking about at that time? Climbing up, I thought that the Tower seemed unexpectedly straight from the inside. An amazing piece of engineering - such a cleverly designed place does deserve to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a little café situated just opposite the Piazza, offering a great view onto the Tower and the cathedral. The atmosphere in it was quiet and slow like in a temple of food appreciation and meditation on a drop of aromatic espresso. The food was a’la Tuscany – very nice and simple without any obvious risk of causing obesity since portions were sensibly small. Alex was very happy with his cheesy pizza. The waiter was singing while trying to attract more visitors. He became extremely lively to announce us that no service charge was included in the bill, which was already more that I expected… Oh well, I paid and left with a confused feeling of having been cheated but satisfied myself with the fact that we are not going to dine here again. The waiter probably knew this for definite. Surely every year they see millions of passers by through the city.

When we walked back to the station it was pouring with rain which did not add much colour to anyway greyish streets. Pisa somehow did not create an impression of a place where tourists take long breaks. Having finished exploration of the historic Piazza at 1pm we thought it was time to move out of Pisa. To our disappointment there was no way out due to a strike of trains and busses.

Shopping also said to me: "No" because shops are apparently shut on Sundays, as well as Mondays. One can imagine my frustration at being unable to get a taste of Italian fashion because we had to go back to Bournemouth the next Tuesday!

8 am on Monday morning we left Pisa for Florence – which was very easy - just a 10.40 Euro return ticket and a 1 hour train journey. In terms of transportation means Pisa is situated perfectly as a connection point with many major Italian cities like Genoa, Milan, Rome. Overall transport is good and very much affordable, car hire might give more flexibility though.

Having previously travelled around Europe with my husband, I never paid much attention to the necessity of stamping a ticket prior to getting on a train. It’s so easy in England – you buy a ticket, you get on a train, you travel. In Italy, as well as everywhere else in Europe, apparently it is compulsory to validate a ticket, failure to do so could result in a fine of double the price of the ticket (!) "It is the law" said the train conductor, half way to Florence, and threatened to call the police. This took me by surprise. In our case it was quite clear that we had no intention to cheat the Italian law, having bought a ticket ten minutes before getting on the train and due to leaving the country the very next morning – no spare time to re-use the ticket if remained unstamped.
Oh, yes - this is important to learn simple rules of the country before the travel, now I know! This was a good pre-Romania travel lesson to Alex too.

In Florence I recapped with the conductor the situation again and promised to always stamp (validate) my tickets in the future. We parted wishing each other a good day.

Our day in Florence was splendid. Sunshine at last (hope this was not because Florence is generally sunnier than Pisa because it is bigger and more beautiful).

Florence can’t be described in a word or two – its beauty is out of this world, it is full of wonders and a home to Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Primavera.
The French writer Stenghal was so dazzled by the magnificence of the Basilica de Santa Croche that he barely was able to walk for faintness. This is a common phenomenon of Stenghalliness (or Stendhal Syndrome) when people are nearly to faint of the greatness on the city. One can definitely faint of exhaustion and excitement all together in Florence. It is packed with sights which are close to each other. One-day trip was just enough for visiting main squares, photo taking and ticking up a box in the list of "I have seen this".
Museums are usually shut on Mondays anyway.
Florence was very different to Pisa.

Europe amuses every time I pay it a visit - every place is very different despite being united into the EU. The Union brings integration in terms of economy and prosperity but cultural difference emerge sharply. Each country has its unique historic and cultural heritage and traditions.

Even some facilities are different. I got into a few confusing situations in Pisa, mainly in the toilets…. In one restaurant I pulled an alarm string thinking it was a light lead and drawn loads of attention from the restaurant staff, security and fellow customers. At another place I kept touching the water tube and waiving my hands in all directions in front of it imagining it was sensor designed, instead there was a pump pedal under the sink – might be even Roman’s design still in use.

If not the differences full of adventures and discoveries we would have just stayed at home nicely tacked in our beds at 8sh am Sundays mornings.

© Natalya Popova April 2007
ferganavalley at

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