If you have an extra day, Pisa is certainly worth the trip. Pisa not only has the tower, which does lean, and is beautiful and in a beautiful piazza, but Pisa is a vibrant college town with an interesting university—and it is the birthplace of Galileo.
You can reach Pisa by train or bus from Livorno or Florence. If you come by train you will either need to find a taxi or take about a 20 minute walk to the tower. You can also drive, and with determination, find a place to park. There are many hotels in Pisa as well.
Pisa is one of my favorite cities. I first visited Pisa in 1957 when I was 12. Our family had just moved to Italy and we all climbed to the top of the tower and looked at the beautiful city below us. The tower was closed for many years—but it has re-opened and it is worth the climb!
PIAZZA OF MIRACLES AND THE LEANING TOWER
Why is Pisa worth the trip? Everyone knows that it has a tower and that the tower leans. What most people don’t know is that it is a beautiful tower in a breath-taking piazza—the Piazza dei Miracoli (piazza of miracles). The tower does lean—it is rather amazing to see. And climbing a leaning tower is as exciting now as it was when I was 12. The stairway is made of marble stairs which are worn according to how the tower leans. There are a lot of them. Nearly 300! Visitors can go out on the bell level—and admire the beautiful bells and then climb even higher to the very top. There are mountains off in one direction, the Arno in another, and far in the distance the sea is sometimes visible. Looking down on the Duomo and the Baptistery is impressive, and the stairway has some windows where you are at eye level with the statues on the roof of the Duomo.
The Duomo is also beautiful—a good example of Roman-Pisan architecture. Don’t miss the exquisite wooden seats which line the wall next to the entrance. The Baptistery, just beyond the Duomo is also beautiful, and now one can go up in the gallery and look down on the baptismal font. The Baptistery has amazing acoustics. In the 1950’s the curator sang for visitors—a simple scale which became nearly operatic in the acoustical wonder of that place. If there is ever a choir performing there, it is worth making an effort to hear them.
There is also a museum next to the Duomo, which we did not go in this trip.
You can buy tickets to all of the attractions or to any combination that you would like. Tickets are available on-line. If you want to go up in the tower you will be given a specific time as only 40 people are admitted at one time. You will be allowed to stay about 20 minutes in the top of the tower. You will need to check purses and bags in one of the ticket offices as you are not allowed to bring anything into the tower with you.
There are bathrooms nearby—which cost 50 cents but which are so modern and spiffy—the cost is worth it—especially for those of us who remember Italian toilets of yesteryear.
PISA IS A COLLEGE TOWN!
Most tourists don’t know that Pisa is a college town. The University of Pisa is one of the oldest and most highly respected in all of Italy. It was founded in 1343. Galileo, who attended the university, was professor of Mathematics there in 1589.
The University is within easy walking distance of the Piazza Dei Miracoli. After your visit to the Piazza, stop for lunch at one of the restaurants nearby. Yes, they are touristy, but everyone from Rick Steeves, to Arthur Frommer and going back almost a thousand years has recommended a trip to Pisa—you can still get a good meal there. Continue walking (ask directions from your waiter) to the Piazza dei Cavalieri where you will see the Palazzo della Carovana dei Cavalieri. This beautiful building houses the Scuola Normale Superiore, founded by Napoleon, and part of the University of Pisa.
GALLILEO AND ICE CREAM
Continue walking towards the house where Galileo was born in 1654, the Ammannati House, on Via Giuseppe Giusti, 24. While there is no museum and the house is not open, it is a beautiful house, and a pleasant walk—past many pasticcerie. Salza; Borgo Stretto 46, is the oldest (it opened in 1928) and many would say the best pasticceria in Pisa. They have pastries and their ice cream is incredible. Try a combination I especially like—nocciola (hazelnut) and chocolate.
From Galileo’s house it is a short walk to the Arno River.
There is a beautiful celebration on the river every year on June 16, the day honoring Pisa’s patron saint, San Ranieri. After sunset, candles are placed in the windows of all the buildings lining the Arno. In addition, thousands of candles are floated down the river. The tradition which began in 1688 was recently ignored by some residents. There is now an ordinance which requires the citizens of Pisa, lucky enough to live on the river, to participate! I remember seeing this in the late 50s—it was an incredible sight to see so many candles floating down a river.
The church of Santa Maria Della Spina, one of Pisa’s small churches, is located on the banks of the Arno. It is a pretty church and owes its name to a spine from Jesus’ crown of thorns brought from the Holy Land. The spine is no longer at the church. The church it is an easy walk to the train station.
Contributed by Susan Willey Spalt