By Sasha Mishkin
Italy is one of those countries you could spend a lifetime exploring and never see it all. Even after studying in Florence for four months in college, I still haven’t had my fill of the narrow, cobblestoned streets that unearth historic sculptures, buildings, landscapes, and restaurants with every exhilarating turn.
While I could easily spend the day writing about my time running through Rome, visiting the ruined city of Pompeii, stuffing my face in Bologna, or swimming off the island of Capri, I’d like to recount a visit to the overlooked town of the famous leaning tower—Pisa.
Only an hour away from Florence, Pisa entices tourists worldwide with its iconic, tipsy tower. As I imagine it was for most, the tower was one of my earliest childhood memories of Europe. It’s a cliché you have to embrace, like eating hot dogs at a baseball game or kissing in the rain.
Upon exiting the Pisa Centrale train station, my two friends and I were met with a large map of the city. A thick line marked the route to the Leaning Tower. But that is not the only sight to see in the city of over 87,500 residents. The capital of the Province of Pisa is historically dense with numerous churches, palaces, and many bridges stretching across the wide mouth of the River Arno.
Clothing shops, restaurants and cafes line the streets of the charming, scenic city. The walk to the tower is one hour, but it is leisurely and serves as a great way to get acquainted with the fun energy permeating the city. In 1989, artist Keith Haring introduced New York City graffiti to the Renaissance city, painting the wall of a building with a work that represents the world’s vibrancy called, “Whole Wide World.”
Continuing along the pedestrian route to Ponte di Mezzo, we absorbed spectacular views of the Arno River and gaped at mansions along the way. After crossing a bridge to Piazza Garibaldi, we paused for a svelte scoop of creamy gelato in its many irresistible flavors at La Bottega del Gelato.
From there, we window-shopped on Borgo Street, which, in the sixth century B.C. was one of the canals that connected two parallel rivers that formed Pisa. After years spent rivaling Venice and Genoa, Pisa reached power in 1200 A.D. as a sea-trading power, using its wealth to build the Field of Miracles and the famous Tower of Pisa.
Our next stop was the Piazza de Cavalieri. Once the training place for navy trainees, the square now displays a statue of Cosimo I de’Medici, the Florentine who ruled Pisa during the 16th century. Where his foot should be is a dolphin, symbolizing the Florentine army and its control over the Mediterranean Sea. I was gaining more and more insight into the city’s history with every lesson and view of the fading frescoes on surrounding buildings.
We finally arrived at the tower after walking straight on Via Corsica and turning right onto Via Santa Maria. Set on what is probably the greenest lawn in all of Italy is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I learned that the bell tower started to lean almost immediately after construction began. You would think that after four stories they would stop construction, but they pushed forth and completed the full eight stories. In order to ensure the tower would not collapse, water was pumped out of the ground to destabilize the bell tower, causing it to lean at a rate of one millimeter per year. If you want to climb the steps of the tower, you can make an appointment at the ticket office for an hour or two later.
While waiting, do not neglect the Duomo, Baptistry, and Camposanto Cemetary sprawled across the Field of Miracles lawn. The cathedral is impressive with its thick, bronze doors outlining the story of Jesus Christ in a series of 24 panels. The Baptistery is the largest in all of Italy, but even so, it is simple and sparsely decorated. One remarkable attribute is the acoustics in the Baptistery. You can whisper something from one side, and the listener at the other end will hear it as clearly as if they were standing next to each other. The cemetery’s interesting appeal is that many of the memorials are of Pisans who died in 1348, a time when the bubonic plague was rampant.
My friends and I decided to skip the climb and opted for a relaxing lunch instead. We wanted to forgo the tourist-begging waiters and find a local trattoria. Just off of Piazza Cavalieri, we found a café offering large umbrellas over simple wooden tables. The sun was out, glorifying the tilted monument, and set the scene for a nice outdoor meal. The selection of sandwiches, pizzas, platters, and pastas looked fresh and filling. The three of us split a “Misto Toscano,” consisting of cold meats, pecorino cheese, and freshly cut tomatoes. The combination was delightful and complemented my savory speck thin-crust pizza. Our server was typical of Italian characters, full of personality and grand hand gestures. Back on the train, my head against the window, I closed my eyes and sunk deeper into Italy’s culture and history.
*Special note: This article is dedicated to my two dear friends, Anna and Ethan, who fell in love with Italy and each other. They now live in Bologna and can expect a visit from me shortly.
Sasha Mishkin grew up on the North Shore and attended college in New York City. She has written travel and lifestyle stories for various publications. Track her latest travels, tips and insights on Instagram (@cityofone) and Twitter (@sashamish).