A Pisa Day Trip

I wanted to mention something that happened at the Pietre Dure museum yesterday. I could see through one of the windows that they had a big rock heap in the courtyard (they still practise what they display), and I wanted to go see it. But the courtyard was marked as private. So I asked at the front desk if I could go in and take a few photos. The guy came out from behind the desk, walked over to another guy who looked like his job was carrying those rocks around, and asked him something in Italian. The response was possibly the world's most emphatic "No" in word, body language, and added sound effect - it was fairly impressive. The first guy gestured at me, said a couple words, and the other guy looked me over, then beckoned me to come with him into the courtyard. WTF? I'm not complaining, but ... so ... Italian.

Another "common thing" around here (to go with the smell of leather and the guys with machine guns previously mentioned) is street vendors selling selfie-sticks in a rainbow of colours. They're near every major tourist destination, and their product haunts all of us wherever we go. When it rains, they magically reappear clutching umbrellas for sale.

I got to the train station around 0845 this morning and noticed there was an 0853 departure to Pisa. I didn't make that one (didn't expect to), eventually got a ticket on the 0928. What the ticket guy didn't mention was that the final destination was "Livorno," not "Pisa," so that's how it showed up on the Departures board - took me a while to figure that one out. Don't forget to validate your ticket on the platform! The ride is slightly over an hour, and quite comfortable (only €8).

Pisa Centrale (the train station) is about a kilometre walk from Piazza dei Miracoli, which is where all the big tourist attractions (including the tower) are. I walked around the Piazza with its meticulously groomed lawns, admiring the gorgeous Duomo (Cathedral), Battistero (Baptistery), Camposanto (we'll get to that), and - of course - the tower. I was gobsmacked by the number of people with their hands out, holding up open air for their camera-equipped friends: apparently that's a joke that just doesn't get old for most people. I think I saw one person who was pushing the tower over instead of holding it up - that's something, I guess.

I want to talk about the tower because it fascinates me. (This is paraphrased from Lonely Planet and is likely even less accurate than that source.) Its purpose in life was to be the bell tower for the Duomo - surprisingly, it apparently still fulfills that role (happily not while I was standing next to the bells). But the choice of location was poor, and the tower began to tilt because of swampy soil before it was half built. Construction took generations. The second architect had a shot at fixing the tilt by making the tower ever so slightly banana-shaped (I didn't notice it in person, but I can definitely see it in the pictures). The tower was completed, but as the centuries passed, it settled further until it was leaning at something in the neighbourhood of five degrees. This was a little too much, so the building was closed, massively counter-weighted, and a decade-long project was instigated to straighten and stabilize the tower. This was completed a bit more than a decade ago, with the tower now leaning at a comfortable 3.8 degrees or so. It's a lovely building in its own right, but it's the tilt that's made it the world-renowned landmark it is today.

photo: The Leaning Tower

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, looking almost straight up.

You can climb the Leaning Tower. If you're reading this, you know I had to. €18 timed entry, and you have to leave your bag behind - although you can of course take your camera. Even stepping into the building is disorienting, something I hadn't expected. The main floor is, not surprisingly, as off-kilter as the tower. I didn't expect four degrees of tilt to be particularly noticeable, but it is. And it gets even weirder when you go up the stairs, as you spiral from tilting one way to tilting the other and back again on worn and slippery stone steps. At the top, the world seems alarmingly close on one side.

The views are great: while it's only 58 metres tall, the Leaning Tower is by far the largest structure for miles (okay, the Duomo's Dome comes close, but nothing else does). I stayed up there half an hour or so, enjoying the perfect weather and the views.

The Camposanto has a weird history: local medieval worthies had themselves buried in ancient Roman sarcophagi, and/or borrowed Roman headstones etc. The Camposanto collected all of these into one place, a very long rectangular building - essentially an enormously long cloister lined with graves and sarcophagi. Bizarre, but actually really lovely and peaceful (and a break from the very busy Piazza). There are lots and lots of frescoes, most in pretty serious disrepair. One is particularly famous, showing as it does the tortures of sinners in hell - it's also in somewhat better shape.

Several years ago, I was struck by a sarcophagus (in the intellectual sense, not the physical) in Prague that was simultaneously beautiful and vastly self-aggrandizing. The person who had this commissioned thought exceptionally well of themselves. A gorgeous young girl was sprawled across the sarcophagus, weeping at the loss of this person for all eternity. I hadn't seen the like until today, although the two or three here that included young women at the grave-side didn't have them sprawled weeping over the sarcophagus - none were so blatant as that. But you gotta think really well of yourself to believe this is a good memorial ... Of course, it could be your family that arranged it, who knows?

A surprise find was some guy by the name of Leonardo Fibonacci - and given that the grave (no weeping girl, but a large statue) mentions "Matematico," I think he's the one I'm thinking of. Very cool. (Wikipedia confirms this.)

P.S. Lots more reliquaries.

My next stop was the Battistero, a gorgeous round and rather tall building. It's mostly white marble, and heavily decorated on the outside, with massive heads carved all the way round - kind of a Mount Rushmore effect (not really, but it's not a totally inaccurate comparison). Inside we have the lesser of the town's two spectacular Nicola Pisano pulpits: it's a thing to behold, a hexagonal marble beast raised up off the floor by columns supported by lions and carved in great detail on all six sides. It only becomes the "lesser" when you go to the Duomo, so I suppose this was an auspicious choice of order. It's pretty damn impressive by any measure, and the building is an experience too: quite tall, with a second floor gallery you can visit to look down on the detailed tiling in the centre of the floor, a section that's otherwise off-bounds to visitors. And every half hour, one of the guides goes to the middle of the building and sings a bit to demonstrate the impressive acoustics.

photo: You catch these moments when you can: shot out a stair window in the Pisa Baptistery

A couple lying together on the grass.

Finally to the Duomo. Brilliant doors: carved brass monstrosities much along the lines of Ghiberti's masterpiece "The Gates of Paradise" in Firenze. The Duomo has three sets of doors: they may not achieve Ghiberti's level of mastery, but I spent a lot of time looking at them and photographing them because they're damn cool.

Sadly the Duomo is being renovated - there are sections you can't see. Massive paintings at intervals all along the walls. Impressive altar. But the real attention-getter in this enormous and ornate church is the second Pisano pulpit. Wow - it's outrageous, but also beautiful - so detailed, superbly carved. And then there's the astonishingly ugly 1990s pulpit right at the front (typical of medieval pulpits predating amplification, the Pisano pulpit is about a quarter of the way down the length of the church). The new one is one of those things that you look at and think "I know what you were trying to do ..."

photo: Pisa's Duomo (Cathedral)

The interior of the Duomo (Cathedral) in Pisa, with scaffolding.

I also found a couple wonderful grotesques: the world really needs more of those. These two were carved of white marble, inside the church (they're more commonly outside) on either side of a grave marker. Very detailed, quite wonderful.

I took a last pass around the Piazza, taking a few more shots in the afternoon light, then headed back for the train station. An interesting footnote to the Pisa trip was Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, a small church right on the Arno River (which also runs through Firenze). The exterior is fantastically ornate, with carvings from end to end and top to bottom: I hope to have some good photos.

Catch the train back to Firenze, and dinner was (again) at Il Contadino (recommended by both the Rough Guide and Albina, the B&B manager): Crostone with ham and something cream ... the "cream" is some form of pungent brown stuff that's probably at least partly pureed, strong-flavoured mushrooms (further research has suggested chicken livers as another possibility). The ham is one of the several varieties of cured pork, and "crostone" is crusty bread.

They didn't have the rabbit cacciatore I wanted (only roasted rabbit), no chicken legs in sweet wine (only roasted chicken), so I got seafood linguine. Clams, mussels, one shrimp, a couple scampi tails(?) (in the shell), and squid. It was a struggle getting those scampi tails out, and all those shells ... fairly good though in the end. And a side of spinach with garlic that sadly got cold as I fought with my main.

And, in my continuing quest to find the perfect tiramisu ... holy mother of god their tiramisu is good. And ... amazingly, it's too big. I ate it anyway. Good lord this place is cheap: I got a 1/4 wine and dessert, and the total bill is still under €20.

At a local bar I asked "what's the orange drink that everyone drinks around here?" You see people drinking them in all the sidewalk cafes. I'd assumed it was a Negroni as that was invented here, but it turns out to be a "Spritz," which is mostly Aperol and Prosecco with a bit of soda water over ice. The vivid orange is from the Aperol, which also brings the distinctive (but not unappealing) bitterness: it's an aperitif wine in the same family with Campari. While he used a lot of ice, he also used a lot of alcohol, so trying an actual Negroni will have to wait for another night. The drink even has its own Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperol_Spritz