“OK, Ladies and Gentlemen,” the tour guide bellowed to the crowd of passengers who had just cluttered off a gleaming white coach, “You have one hour to see the Leaning Tower, then back on the coach and off to Florence.”
That may have just been a single coach and one group of passengers, but it is sadly an all too common situation in Northern Tuscany. Tourists are bussed in to see the sights, either on extended tours from the UK, or on day trips from their hotels, and never really experience the true beauty and feeling of the towns and cities – or indeed the countryside – they are passing.
I realise this will come as a shock to many people, including many who have been to the famous Italian city, but Pisa has so much more to offer than its iconic leaning tower. It has a Roman harbour, a fortress, and an ancient university, plus some enticing winding medieval streets, and a wealth of other notable and impressive historic buildings.
For those coach trippers it will be a brief stop, as they are deposited close to the Leaning Tower, have time to see it and the other buildings on the ‘Field of Miracles’, buy a couple of tacky souvenirs, and then back on the coach and tick the “I’ve done Pisa” box.
There’s no denying the Leaning Tower is an amazing building, and rightly deserves its, sometimes overbearing, attention. It’s actually the bell tower for the adjacent, and equally magnificent, Duomo. Along with these, a Baptistry (which incidentally also leans slightly), and the fascinating monumental cemetery called the Camposanto, make up what is known as the Field of Dreams. The group are neatly spread on a flat, lawned area, just inside Pisa’s city walls. Personally, I think the Duomo is the most beautiful of the four, with its huge cast bronze doors opening to reveal a stunning marbled interior. Amongst the many treasures is a much heralded sculpted pulpit. I’m told that this was put into storage after a fire in the 16th Century, and only found in 1926. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful work, but I couldn’t help but wonder who ‘forgot’ they had stored it, and how you can ‘lose’ such a huge thing!
Next door is the much smaller and less ornate Baptistry, and between the Duomo and the city walls is the Camposanto. This has been called ‘The Most Beautiful Cemetery in the World’, although sadly most of the most beautiful frescos were victims of bombing during World War Two. If the legends are to be believed, Pisan knights were told to bring back a cargo of soil from the hill at Golgotha, so that those buried here were truly in holy soil.
Once you’ve had your fill of these magnificent sights, head south along the Via Santa Maria towards the river. On the left you’ll pass the oldest University Botanical Gardens in the world, before coming to the Campanile of San Nicola. I think this, in some ways, is even more bizarre than the famous leaning tower. Not only does San Nicola’s lean, it also has three distinct changes of shape as it rises. The round lower section is then changed to an octagonal centre part, which in turn is topped by a hexagonal tower. I, like many before me, have spent far too much time gazing at it wondering what was going through the minds of the architects who created this bizarre landmark.
Just past San Nicola’s you’ll come to one of my favourite areas of Pisa… the banks of the River Arno. There are some superbly characteristic buildings lining the river in both directions, and this is usually a place that has me reaching for my camera.
Walk along a short way and you’ll come to the oldest part of the city, with small narrow streets around the old market area. I always enjoy just wandering these medieval thoroughfares, and up to the old town square – the Piazza dei Cavalieri. There is a pleasant timeless atmosphere, which at the same time has a vibrancy invoked by the inevitable student bustle. This is the best area for finding restaurants or entertainment at sensible prices, as those near the Leaning Tower are generally overpriced and not particularly memorable. I liked the Osteria dei Cavalieri, (Knights Tavern) in an impressive historical building, which had excellent food and wine, and the staff all spoke good English to translate the menu.
If you’re staying in Pisa, the Hotel Amalfitana is my recommendation. Perfectly situated midway between the Field of Miracles and the river, and within a few minutes walk of the old town, it’s an old monastery building from the 15th Century. The rooms are basic but clean and comfortable, and breakfast is eaten in the 500-year-old kitchen. The only problem I encountered was finding somewhere to park nearby.
Pisa was a thriving trading port centuries before anyone ever contemplated the Field of Miracles. Indeed, not many years ago much of the original Roman harbour was discovered, quite by accident, whist extending the railway station. I was amazed to learn that even a number of ships had been found, including a complete Roman warship. The huge Arsenale, close to the river, is now housing many of these, along with other finds from the excavations. I found it by chance, but was amazed by what was on view.
A couple of minutes walk further along the river brings you to the Cittadella Vecchia, the 13th Century fortress that once guarded Pisa’s harbour. It’s interesting but not somewhere I spent a lot of time. It does, however, give you the opportunity for some great photos across Pisa, from the top of the Torre Guelfa. It’s also something of a rarity in these parts – a tower that actually stands up straight!
Pisa lies in the north west corner of Tuscany, which is an area that is also strangely overlooked by many. The landscape north of the Pisa to Florence autostrada is far more mountainous than the more popular land of rolling hills to the south. Church spires dot the otherwise heavily wooded landscape, each one marking the location of a small village or hamlet that is disguised by the trees.
It’s an area of solitude, remoteness, and peace, whilst at the same time being within easy reach of Pisa, Florence, Bologna, and Sienna. We had chosen a small cottage to stay in, in the mountain top village of Sorana. A labyrinth of tiny cobbled streets and alleyways cling to the steep slopes, and the whole place looks like a setting for a medieval film. The cottage is a traditional stone farmhouse retaining all the usual beautiful Tuscan features of cotto floors, chestnut beams and an open fireplace.
Outside there are private olive groves for the children to play in, a terrace for al fresco dining, and a pool for cooling off in the glorious summer days – all with spectacular views of the Pescia valley. (http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/rentals/pescia/98899 )
The locals are cheerful and welcoming, and seem far more keen to spend time chatting than those in the big cities. Renting a cottage in a small village such as Sorana is a great way to really become ensconced into the local lifestyle. There is a small bar in the heart of the community, close to the church, where you can easily relax, chat to the villagers, and while away the hours. The views across the valley in the wispy morning mist are serenaded by bells of more than a dozen churches within earshot. Each one is slightly out of time with its neighbour, so that the eight o’clock chimes last for a full five minutes.
It’s not an area to hurry around, even if that were possible. The narrow, twisting roads cling to the sides of steep gorges, cross high stone bridges, and thread their way between overhanging medieval buildings. Journeys always take far longer than you expect, but nobody minds. The stunning scenery more than makes up for the slow pace of life here, and after all, you are on holiday – so just relax and take it all in. It’s not often you’ll be in such amazing scenery, and have it all to yourself!