Monday, 16 June 2014

Why Pisa (mostly) let me down

When I saw the cheap fares Ryanair was offering from Pisa to Marrakesh (35€ for a one-way flight), I had no doubts: Pisa it would be for my outbound flight to Morocco. I'd take the time to visit this city in northern Tuscany, of course, and then fly out the following morning. In Italy we say "prendere due piccioni con una fava", which means to catch two birds with one fava bean (English has a more gruesome saying: "to kill two birds with one stone").


The baptistery in Piazza dei Miracoli. In the background, the cathedral and leaning tower.

Unfortunately, Pisa disappointed me for the most part. Don't get me wrong: if you've been living in Pisa for a while, or if you grew up there I'm sure you know little gems, such as good osterie and cute little churches that are worth stopping by. The average tourist, nevertheless, might feel a bit disappointed with the general atmosphere in Pisa.

The main reason why tourists visit Pisa is of course the Leaning Tower, one of the symbols of Italy together with pizza, pasta, and the Colosseum. The adjoining Piazza dei Miracoli (sometimes also called "Campo dei Miracoli) is an absolute marvel, and it should be on everybody's list of things to see in Italy. This is the most visited area of Pisa, but it is on the north-western tip of the town, so a bit far from the train station and the main streets lined with shops and gelaterias. I've even heard of some tourists who left the town without finding the tower!

As a consequence, it took me a while to reach the area on foot from the train station. I had never imagined that you could walk through trafficked Pisa and see the Leaning Tower appearing from behind apartment buildings. It was such a surreal experience!

The Leaning Tower, and apartment blocks

The tower is as you expect it: leaning, and beautiful. The white of the marble is something that you should see for yourself. The whole complex, with the cathedral and the baptistery, is very harmonious. In spite of this, there are too many souvenirs stalls around the tower, West African men selling cheap sunglasses, hot dog stands (not really an Italian thing), and also too much concrete. The town of Galileo, once one of the four "Maritime Republics", can feel like a tourist nightmare.


Selling souvenirs


It is a bit expensive to go up the tower (15€), but I understand that they want to keep visitors at a minimum for preservation. In Piazza dei Miracoli, however, you can choose what to visit between the leaning tower, the baptistery, the cathedral, the museum, and the cemetery (campo santo).

I chose to enter the cathedral and the baptistery. The former is an absolute must, and it is not just another church. It's gracious, and beautiful. Moreover, it's free to visit (you just have to get your ticket at the counter).



The façade of the cathedral

I remember studying Pisani's pulpit in my history of art class, so I immediately recognized it. There are also the tombs of important people, such as that of the Holy Roman emperor Henry VII, but it was the coffered ceiling (we call it "soffitto a cassettoni" in Italian) that impressed me.


The pulpit and the coffered ceiling

The baptistery, while elaborate on the outside, is more basic inside. Some panels explain that the three monuments - the baptistery, the church, and the cemetery  - represent the three fundamental moments of life: birth, life, and death. While I was inside, a man who I guessed was one of the guardians, went in the middle of the baptistery and let us hear the perfect acoustics and the echo, chanting beautifully.

Inside the baptistery


The square is surrounded by a lawn, and while it is forbidden to sit in some parts, there are some areas that were full of people sitting and enjoying the square for a while. It was a sunny day, with a clear sky and bright light, so I indulged.

In spite of this, the whole experience is made overtly touristic by everything around it. There are, for instance, countless restaurants offering cheap and disgusting food to tourists, the so-called "menù turistico". When a restaurant very close to a tourist attraction has an ugly-looking pizza for display in one of its outside tables, well, that's when you know not to enter that place! There are so many of these restaurants in Pisa, more than in any other place I have visited in Tuscany, and perhaps even more than in Venice. I have no doubts that Pisa is full of good  and inexpensive restaurants, but in my modest experience they were not so easy to find.

Moreover, the city appeared to be a bit run-down if compared to other destinations in the area. I passed by several ATMs that had been broken or burned, which means violence and vandalism of some kind had affected the city not long before my visit. Outside of Campo dei Miracoli, the town appeared to be a regular one, without major attractions or anything special that caught my eye. Was it just my impression?


A random church in Pisa
 
 
In a nutshell, Pisa was a bit of a disappointment if you compare it with other cities in Tuscany. It seems to have little to do with Siena, a town in Tuscany that I really love and that I would like to revisit.

The most interesting area beside Piazza dei Miracoli is, in my opinion, that around the university. Here I saw what looked like more genuine bars and small restaurants with locals chatting among themselves and few tourists around.


A cute corner of Pisa, from where I enjoyed my lunch

 
Balcony in Pisa
Balcony in Pisa

My day of sightseeing ended with a picture of the sunset on the Arno, which is the same river that flows through Florence if you are wondering. It's not as spectacular as others that I had seen in pictures, but I was satisfied. With a couple of good shots inside my SD card, I headed back to my hostel, for a good night's rest before my flight in the morning.

Sunset on the river Arno


Have you been to Pisa? What do you think about it?

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