With every trip to Italy, I try to visit a new destinations so we can check off another box on our bucket list. My name is Paul Scopel. I will be your guide throughout this exciting adventure. Some of you might know me from my past travel articles. With over 15 trips to this charmed country, I still had not experienced one of the more recognized iconic destinations in Europe and that is the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
This time, as if by design or magic, our schedule worked out perfectly to include in our itinerary the bell tower of the city’s cathedral. Pisa has approximately 90,000 residents and then add in the surrounding metropolitan area for a total of around 200,000. There are more than 20 historic churches and several medieval palaces along its countryside.
We have a full day planned and it starts with departing from our home base in Florence. A quick stop in Pisa for photographs and then travel onto Lucca where we will have lunch with our local family. Everyone was smiling (shown right) with the news that it was only a short one hour train ride between each of the three cities, with no luggage! It makes it so much easier to hop on and off the train. What a great way to travel!
Having done my homework, I learned that Pisa was worthy of a stop. Albeit a quick one to fit the schedule. Arriving at 11:50 am, we found taxis lined up in front of the train station. I allowed one hour before we needed to be back at the station for our departure to Lucca (see the digital board below). The taxi drivers know the drill. They drive like crazy to the tower, allow 30 minutes to take photos, and get you back in time for the next train departure! The taxi driver waits for you at the tower because they want the business both ways. I have already purchased our train tickets for the entire day’s journeys. We can now just run to our departing train without waiting in line to purchase a ticket.
While enroute to the Piazza del Duomo, our taxi crossed over the River Arno. This waterway meanders throughout the Tuscany region and onto Florence. Quaint, homegrown businesses and multistory residences line the river in central Pisa (See below). Much of the city’s architecture influence and support came from being one of the most powerful Italian maritime republics.
This peaceful looking city has seen its share of maritime victories, conquerors and conflicts including the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Charlemagne, the Saracens, Spain, France, the Vikings and neighboring regions. That’s quite the resume in my book. What I am learning is that the Pisan trade and maritime prowess extended throughout the Mediterranean to the boot of Italy, present day Israel and Egypt and over to Constantinople (Istanbul). Most relevant to today’s visit is that the golden treasures taken from the Saracens in Palermo allowed the Pisans to build their cathedral and other structures. This also included the construction of the famous Piazza del Duomo, which is where we are headed.
Along the way we passed another significant landmark. The Knights’ Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri) is the second main square in the city. Here is where the political action of Pisa has occurred since the 12th Century. Although the building looks very modern, the façade (pictured, left) was last renovated during the Renaissance (1400s). It is now part of the University of Pisa.
Let me provide a brief history lesson before we go any further – Pisa was in constant conflict especially with Genoa for almost 135 years (1165-1290). The three primary catalysts which led to Pisa’s demise are their defeat at the hands of Genoa in the dramatic naval Battle of Meloria (1284), the changing course of the River Arno, and malaria. Following the battle between the naval fleets of Pisa and Genoa, the Port of Pisa to the Tyrrhenian Sea was closed and the Genoese covered the land with salt. With the river flow naturally changing and growing silt deposits near the sea, galleys eventually could not reach the city’s port. After 1,400 years, Pisa found itself 7 miles from the sea instead of 2.5 miles as in Roman times. The old adage “Location! Location! Location!” holds true again. Pisa lost its port advantage. Then eventually the shipping jobs went away as well, which created financial havoc for the city. Pisa has had some notable residents including Enrico Fermi (physicist & Nobel Prize winner), Galileo Galilei (Astronomer) and Andrea Bocelli (tenor who attended law school here).
The city’s main square of Pisa is the Piazza del Duomo. It is also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) since the 20th century. Note the green fields in front of the buildings which are about half the size of a US football field. There are chains to keep tourists on the narrow sidewalks that dissect the greenbelts. The square offers four major tourist sites: the leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo or Cathedral (pictured, right), the round Baptistery (pictured, below right) and the Campo Santo (the monumental cemetery). The Duomo contains significant art treasures, but the tourist draw is for its big sister, the leaning tower of Pisa (or simply known as “The Tower of Pisa”).
Rick Steves, a well known tour operator states, “The tower is surrounded by what may be Italy’s tackiest ring of souvenir stands.” However, the ladies in our group were thrilled with this prospect and seized the opportunity to find items for their friends and family. With the huge crowds in this highly commercialized square, it is easy to be photo bombed, intentionally or unintentionally – because there isn’t much room to maneuver for that “special” photo. When you do get the opportunity to take a picture, try to think of some creative angle to pose with the Leaning Tower. My cousin Kenny used all his strength he could muster to keep the leaning tower from falling while we were there.
Upon our return to the states, I have been asked, “Does the 200 foot tower really lean?” My obvious response is Yes! Shortly after construction commenced on the tower in 1173, people started to notice a slight tilt. The heavy weight on the soft soil on one side of the foundation caused the structure to slowly start leaning. The architect made some last minute changes to the top portion of the tower to compensate for the flaw. But it wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the tower was partially corrected and stabilized. It is possible now for 30 people an hour to climb the 294 steps to the top. Legend has it that Galileo performed gravity experiments from the top of the tower, such as timing the speed of an object’s descent.