Funky house heading into Pisa town.
Pisa, another famous Tuscan city of course albeit for maybe one reason only, will be a stop-off town for me today on route to the area on the north west coast of Italy collectively known as Le Cinque Terre. I’ve been told by Steve in Florence, and he’s right, that really you don’t need that much time in Pisa to take everything in that you would wish to. Honestly I am seriously not an advocate of just crashing into places, “Doing the Pisa experience” or the “Florentine dash” or “how much of Rome can you see in a day”. Wherever possible we should take our time to slow down and absorb places rather than expect them to conform to MTV Generation expectations of quick-hit culture, however Pisa can both be relaxing and not rushed but still impart it small but significant collection of treasures to you in a good half day.
The weather toady… “oh, you know already?”… yeah it was flippin’ incredible all day. I buy my onward ticket to Vernazza (one of the Cinque Terre villages) via La Spezia and unusually for the very helpful Self-service ‘biglieterro’ (ticket) machines the train departure time is fixed at 17.00pm. Normally you choose a vague time window you think you might catch but the ticket is open for some months and valid for travel anytime you chose to date validate stamp it. Oh well, stuck in Pisa ‘til 17.00 for better or for worse.
I hope it’s fun!
I promise I didn't actually intend to lean in the opposite direction :D lol
…and yeah it’s a very pretty town. Well, the bits of it I frequent today anyway. Rolling out from the station it don’t look so hot but once you hit and cross the Arno river (my friend from Florence soothing me again) at the Ponte di Mezzo and enter the older part of town things pick up. The chain of shop and restaurant lined, sporadically medievalist streets Borgo Stretto, Via Oberdan and then Via Carducci take you north in the general direction of the Campo dei Miracoli (where the city’s architectural crown jewels reside) however there are many and varied routes through the streets to end up at the sizeable final tourist destination.
A few twists and turns, your first few stalls selling multitudinous replicas of the star attraction and then all of a sudden, almost jumping out and surprising you, there it is… Le Torre Pendente.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa. I can’t tell you how strange (in a wonderful way) I find the experience of the first few minutes eyeball to eyeball with this almost ridiculously iconic piece of world architecture. I actually laugh out loud. Nothing to do with its comedic slant, but… I dunno? Almost even more than the Eiffel Tower (equally magnificent but in a different way) you feel almost a sense of the unreal whilst staring at it. A kinda “F**k me, the thing actually really does exist after all! And all this time I just thought it was a joke!” But no there it is. It’s tall. It’s white. It’s beautiful. And yep, it’s definitely seen straighter days. Leaning serenely to one side as if paused.
(Leaning) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
Frozen in time in a moment of graceful collapse. A static monument to the fragility of great and beautiful things. I wonder how many great buildings and structures in history/ antiquity have - for whatever reason - carried on down, crashing all the way to be reclaimed by the ground and so not known to us today except for obscure references in works such as those by the likes of Herodotus and his forebears?
The spectacular Pisa Duomo.
Set off by the beautifully blue sky this pristine white structure (the tower’s in the process of a top to toe cleaning and restoration make-over at the moment) looks gorgeous. Quite unreal again. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. So elegant. Almost ethereal despite its weight of stone.
No wonder it’s leaning, this simple, subtle work of architecture was never tethered to the ground ya see, I reckon it floats J
"Wrong building love!" ;)
The Tower actually is one of three principle architectural structures which comprise the Pisa Duomo (cathedral). The largest and most imposing structure on the fantastically spacious, green-lawn expanse of the Campo dei Miracoli grounds is of course the Duomo itself which effectively is book ended by The Tower (the last structure to be completed over some centuries and originally the bell tower for the cathedral) and The Baptistry building.
Even despite their scale all three appear delicately crafted in white stone and marble. Set upon perfectly kept green lawns, they look like wedding cake decorations or something. Curiously the Baptistry also suffers from subsidence issues you notice, leaning slightly (although not as precariously) as the Tower in the opposite direction.
I opt for the Monthy Python, Terry Gilliam tribute approach :))
The Leaning Tower also provides for some top-drawer people watching fun. One of my favourite activities! It seems one cannot visit the Tower without taking thousands of humorously contrived photos where you, your partner and friends attempt to be framed within the photo in a way that makes it look like you’re attempting to prop up or - more often than not - push over the long suffering Tower.
Observing this is great, great fun. I cannot stress how much! The whole of the Campo dei Miracoli feels like you’ve just walked into the world’s largest impromptu Tai Chi lesson with men and women leaning, stretching and arcing there arms legs and backs to try and get the comedy shot that’ll have the folks back home reeling in the isles with laughter. Predominantly this involves a kind of forced one leg straining before the other with then both arms pushed rigidly forward with both palms together flat in what formation is probably referred to as the 'preying mantis' or the 'grasshopper' or some such title in martial arts text books but here may be called ‘The Muppet’. So funny. Some individuals like disinterested lovers between the sheets do the photographic equivalent of “not tonight dear, I’ve got a headache” by limply raising a hand to the image of the tower whilst cringing with embarrassment or boredom at their partner's over-enthusiastic-puppy mania for getting these highly 'original' photo poses done.
A Japanese couple even start a full on argument with each other, fractiously spitting venom at each other for not getting the pose juuuust right time and time again, "take twenty two" any beyond. Other people are much more up for it. One young Hispanic girl is down on the ground contorting her body frankly in a veritable Karma Sutra of athletic anatomical positioning whilst her friend laughs and snaps away at her mate's attempts to prop the tower up with her arse, legs, feet and other physical attributes. The leaning Baptistry also is subject to this day-long photographic tourist molestation.
Th ePisa Baptistry
On the formal side of things all sights around the Campo dei Miracoli can be visited at a cost and the system is fabulously efficient I have to say.
At varying degrees of cost you can buy tickets that gain you access to either just the Duomo, or that and several others of the sights including the Baptistry, a couple of museums in the area and the grandiose looking Camposanto (cemetery) that runs along the northern line of the square. A limited (but quite substantial) number of individuals can enter and ascend to the top of the Leaning Tower in staggered groups however this costs 15 Euros on top of whatever entry rights to other buildings you may have already paid. No concessions for the star attraction. For my part I’ve done a few towers and church domes too many already in my travels to date so don’t think this one will do anything new for me… especially at that price. The beauty and elegance of the Tower are best observed from below I feel and after paying just 2 Euros to enter the fab Duomo mostly that’s all I do. Lie on the ground, the immaculately kept and seamlessly green lawns that surround everything here in the blistering sunlight and stare up at the Tower and people milling around upon it summit.
For that 17.00 train ticket outta town is some hours away.
The Pisa Cemetary.
The southern border and the outskirts of Campo dei Miracoli house an endless line of souvenir stalls. I have no idea how they all manage to make a living worth the name but they seem to thrive nonetheless. Thankfully the Campo area is so spacious that this does not intrude or ruin the experience at all. Slightly more invasive are the squadrons of free-floating trinket-sellers who pester you sometimes quite aggressively to buy handbags (“Yeah, ‘cos ya know that’s juuuuust what a lone male backpacker’s in need of!”) , reproduction brand shades, watches and belts etc, but again nothing that politeness or just plain ignoring won’t get you past unscathed.
What else does Pisa have to offer? Not sure myself.
You may have to search other blogs for a more considered or comprehensive appraisal of the city as a whole. Some nice little squares; Piazza Martiri della Liberta in particular. Also the Piazza dei Cavalieri with the Palazzo (Palace) dell’Orologio and the Palazzo dei Cavalieri with its impressive example of scrafitti designs upon its façade. Scrafitti being the method of etching designs into the building plaster whilst it is still wet I have learnt. I first came across this on some of the buildings in Davos and St.Moritz. I gather it’s quite prevalent throughout the villages and towns of the Alpine range.
Five o’clock eventually arrives. I’ve been champing at the bit to get on to Le Cinque Terre for a couple of hours now so am glad to be on my way again.
Whilst later awaiting the train connection from the principle town of the Ligurian coastline La Spezia I meet a good chap who will become my pal and travel buddy for the next 3 or so days that I will spend in Le Cinque Terre. An Australian lad who’s been working for Microsoft in Seattle for three years, Bede. We hit it off pretty quick. Mutual loves of travelling, diving and a shared disillusionment with Florence, The Uffizi etc set us on our way conversationally.
Statue within the Duomo
Le Cinque Terre (literally translating as the ‘five lands’) refers to a small string of five coastal villages that sit perched one after the other along a 9 kilometre stretch of the Ligurian coastline in north west Italy. The five villages in order of arrival heading north from La Spezia are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and finally Monterosso (al Mare).
Fairly regular(ish) trains run up and down the branch line that runs between La Spezia to Levanto in the north and beyond. Believe the guidebooks. Blink and you will miss the individual train stations on the line. Bede and I both originally intending to head on to Vernazza (on the grounds of recommendations from both guise books and Bede’s girlfriend who was here but weeks ago) actually change tack and decide to base ourselves at the beginning of the trail in Riomaggiore… but then all of a sudden “Ooops!” whilst we’ve been talking somehow we actually have missed the first three frickin’ villages!!! I swear we didn’t notice a thing! So a lady helpfully advises us Vernazza’s the next stop anyway. Maybe it was just meant to be?
People on top of the Leaning Tower.
… or not! We’ve arrived quite late in the day and despite many, many houses along the vertiginous stone-stepped streets of this village (NOT easy at 20.
30pm with 70 litres of possessions strapped to your back!) having “camero” (rooms) signs upon their doors there’s no room at any of the inns for Stevie and Bede tonight. Or the one or two rooms offered “with sea views” are 100 Euros a night!! After about 9 or 10 “no room” rejections we decide to hop back on the train and head back to Riomaggiore and a hostel called the Mar that I had been keen on in the guide from my original research. It’s dark now and when we arrive in the heart of the village, not wanting to risk wasting too much time I just head straight into the first bar we come to and ask a lady propping it up at the time where the Mar is. Unfortunately she states with some authority that the Mar is already closed for the night. “Yikes! I sense my first night under the stars coming!” …but fortunately she’s well connected with the provincial tourism structure here and her mate, encouraged by her to down his wine pronto, is made by her to take us up town and meet with a man who can apparently help us out.
Palazzo dei Cavilieri with its 'scrafitti' facade.
“Phew!” 15 minutes later a middle-aged man Antonio Bonanni is our host and for just 20 Euros a night we have a flat all to ourselves! “Fantasticio!” :)
Sunset over the Cinque Terre hills as Bede and I rush along on the Regionale train.