The famous Leaning Tower may bring the tourists in their thousands, but many miss the wealth of other interesting sights that Pisa has to offer
I realise this will come as a shock to many people, including many who have been to the famous Italian city, but Pisa has so much more to offer than its iconic leaning tower. It has a Roman harbour, a fortress and an ancient university, plus some enticing, winding medieval streets, and a wealth of other notable and impressive historic buildings.
My first visit to Pisa, like that of so many tourists, was an all-too-brief stop as part of a tour. We were deposited close to the Leaning Tower, had just time to see it and the other buildings on the 'Field of Miracles', and buy a couple of tacky souvenirs, and then it was back on the coach to tick the “I’ve done Pisa” box.
Except that I hadn’t really done it. And from the few glimpses I had on that first visit, I vowed to return one day and see it properly. It took a few years, but it was certainly worth it.
There’s no denying the Leaning Tower is an amazing building, and rightly deserves its (sometimes overbearing) attention. It’s actually the bell tower for the adjacent and equally magnificent Duomo. Along with these, a Baptistry (which also leans, incidentally), and the fascinating monumental cemetery called the Camposanto, make up what is known as the Field of Miracles. The group are neatly spread on a flat lawned area, just inside Pisa’s city walls. Personally, I think the Duomo is the most beautiful of the four, with its huge cast-bronze doors opening to reveal a stunning marbled interior. Amongst the many treasures is a much heralded sculpted pulpit. I’m told that this was put into storage after a fire in the 16th century, and only found in 1926. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful work, but I couldn’t help but wonder who ‘forgot’ they had stored it, and how you can ‘lose’ such a huge thing!
Next door is the much smaller and less ornate Baptistry, and between the Duomo and the city walls is the Camposanto. This has been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world, although sadly most of the most beautiful frescos were victims of bombing during World War Two. If the legends are to be believed, Pisan knights were told to bring back a cargo of soil from the hill at Golgotha, so that those buried here were truly in holy soil.
Once you’ve had your fill of these magnificent sights, head south along the Via Santa Maria towards the river. On the left, you’ll pass the oldest University Botanical Gardens in the world, before coming to the Campanile of San Nicola. I think this, in some ways, is even more bizarre than the famous leaning tower. Not only does San Nicola’s tower lean, it also has three distinct changes of shape as it rises. The round lower section gives way to an octagonal centre part, which in turn is topped by a hexagonal tower. I have spent far too much time gazing at it, wondering what was going through the minds of the architects who created this bizarre landmark.
Just past San Nicola’s you’ll come to one of my favourite areas of Pisa: the banks of the River Arno. There are some superbly characteristic buildings lining the river in both directions, and this is usually a place that has me reaching for my camera.
Walk along a short way and you’ll come to the oldest part of the city, with small narrow streets around the old market area. I always enjoy just wandering these medieval thoroughfares, and up to the old town square – the Piazza dei Cavalieri. There is a pleasant timeless atmosphere, which at the same time has a vibrancy invoked by the inevitable student bustle. This is the best area for finding restaurants or entertainment at sensible prices, as those near the Leaning Tower are generally overpriced and not particularly memorable. I liked the Osteria dei Cavalieri, which had excellent food and wine, and the staff all spoke good English to translate the menu.
If you’re staying in Pisa, the Hotel Amalfitana is my recommendation. Perfectly situated midway between the Field of Miracles and the river, and within a few minutes' walk of the old town, it’s an old monastery building from the 15th century. The rooms are basic but clean and comfortable, and breakfast is eaten in the 500-year-old kitchen. The only problem I encountered was finding somewhere to park nearby.
Pisa was a thriving trading port centuries before anyone ever contemplated the Field of Miracles. Indeed, not many years ago much of the original Roman harbour was discovered, quite by accident, whilst extending the railway station. I was amazed to learn that even a number of ships had been found, including a complete Roman warship. The huge Arsenale, close to the river, is now housing many of these, along with other finds from the excavations. I found it by chance, but was amazed by what was on view.
A couple of minutes' walk further along the river brings you to the Cittadella Vecchia, the 13th-century fortress that once guarded Pisa’s harbour. It’s interesting but not somewhere I spent a lot of time. It does, however, give you the opportunity for some great photos across Pisa, from the top of the Torre Guelfa. And it also serves to remind you that not all the towers in Pisa have to lean!