Dave the motorhome is miffed. We’ve parked him about a kilometre outside of Pisa, in the official Sosta, and he can’t see the tower from here (N43.72155 E10.42074). All this flippin’ way, and he can’t see the great leaning tower, what a liberty. It could be worse though, we tried to avoid the sosta’s €12 a night charge by staying in the bus car park, which would have meant a full day of fending off an army of looky-looky men, and ignoring the ‘no motorhome’ signs. Seriously, if you’ve lost your brolly, get on down to Pisa, they’ve got thousands of ’em, plus a few designer bags, watches…
We came here this morning via the yellow road. Sat nav, once given our destination, had requested whether we wish to pay tolls, and at the answer of ‘No’, had also become miffed. Rather than the obvious alternative, a straight and wide red road, Dave finds himself scraping a wing mirror against a wooden plank screwed to the road-facing wall of someone’s house, almost like this sort of thing has happened in the past. The oncoming lorry easily won out on the ‘who’s the biggest or maddest’ competition. Not satisfied, sat nav instructed us off the yellow onto a white road, ‘bring it on’ thought I but Ju wisely thought better, switching off the silicon devil and taking over. This explains why we got here in one piece. About 3km away from Pisa I jokingly asked whether Ju could see the tower yet. “Yep, it’s there”, she points out the unmistakeable top of the tower sliding across the horizon and behind someone’s house.
We’re here for the same reason people have travelled here for hundreds of years; the leaning tower! Plus of course the other marble wonders in the Campo del Miracoli (Field of Miracles). After that we weren’t sure what to expect, since Pisa was the victim of dozens of allied bombing raids, as Tuscan Gloria writes about here. Once safely parked up, with cheery Italian instructions from the sosta staff we three headed off, practically bounding up the road. The tower’s something almost everyone in the world recognises, as evidenced by the eclectic bunch of fellow tower propper-uppers when we reached the place, hence our excitement! Galileo supposed to have been here dropping things on unwary folks below, possibly apocryphal, but I love to think my glued-up boots may have trodden where the bearded Italy philosopher once stood.
Over 800 hundred years old, the city’s money magnet is the silver lining of a cloud, the cock-up being building a marble tower on silt with only 3 meters of foundations. As the weight piled up from the ground the whole thing started to tilt, so wedge-shaped stones went in to correct it, but that just swung the thing the other way, and so on and so on over the years. Fast forward to 1990 and all engineer’s attempts to fix the thing had resulted in it about to topple, so desperate were the city they even forwent tourist tower-climbing fees and suspended anyone entering. $30m and 10 years (ish) later and it was opened again, the overhang back to what it was in 1838, but the OurTour budget still didn’t stretch to us going in.
Seeing the tower in its cold hard flesh is an odd sensation, a feeling of familiarity coupled with a sickly feeling of impending doom as though the thing is bound to collapse on our watch. Staring at the clouds floating above it, it seemed to already be on the move and anything does when viewed against a shifting sky. The small throng of tourists around, flying or bus-ing it in from apparently everywhere on Earth, all fooled about holding it up, pushing it over and the like. With so few people fighting for the perfect posing spots it was a good-natured place to be.
The rest of the green-lawned Campo del Miracoli holds three other equally impressive marble beasts; the Duomo, Baptistry and the Camposanto. The latter is a burial ground, supposedly holding soil brought back from the Holy Land during the Fourth Crusade back in 1203. A huge rectangular structure, the frescoes painted within caused it to be referred to as the most beautiful building in Italy. No longer, off-target incendiary bombs dropped by the Allies set fire to the roof, dropping molten lead on them, wiping them away for ever. All this a few days before the Italian government signed an armistice. We skipped going in, staring up at the Moor-inspired arches and patterns of the Baptistry and taking the free-to-wander option of the Duomo.
The Duomo, like most cathedrals, is monumentally impressive. An English tour group walked slowly around as Ju and I took turns to pooch-sit out in the sun. We hung about listening a little to the narrator, who’s accent made him sound like he was speaking Italian, giving a gone-native feel to the tab-hanging. Signs around the place explained in English what you were looking at, the glass-sided coffin of a saint over here, the incredible carved pulpit over there (by Giavanni Pisano which was once boxed up after a 1595 fire and not found again until 1926). I gawped at the place, the imposing outside of the buildings, the 3D metal Duomo doors, the pulpit, the lot together is dream-like, as deserving the label of miracle as any other man-made thing I’ve seen. Opposite it a line of tat stalls flog every kind of, well, tat, you could want, each offering the same gumph there must at times be so many punters they all make a decent living. Looky-looky men don’t get a look-in; unwritten rules keep them outside the gates to the campo.
Exiting the campo, and leaning to one side to try and avoid the attentions of a looky-looky, a chap pulled in on a motorbike. Mike, it turns out, the Ozzie, who’s wandering the world on his little single cylinder Honda. “Well, I was tryin’ to ride her back ta Oz, but had visa trouble in Istanbul”. He’d spotted our guidebook and wanted to know if there was a hostel in there he could try and find. While Ju and him leafed through it I eyed up his lack of panniers, GPS, motorbike gear and massive BMW, the usual tools of a cross-the-globe traveller and nodded with respect. This was a proper traveller, we wished him luck as he rode off down a ‘no entry’ street in an attempt to get his bike close enough to the tower for a photo.
The rest of Pisa is, we thought, rather nice. Unavoidably comparing it with Lucca, it doesn’t quite win out. Lucca is the perfect little tourist package (although lacking in a certain tower), the easy-to-walk centre easily identifiably and circumnavigated upon the brick walls. Pisa’s more spread out, gaps between buildings wider and hence carrying the menace Italian Driver close up and personal. Getting braver, pedestrian crossings are now less of a gauntlet, a mere challenge of manhood, best taken with a certain pretence of ignorance of the oncoming ‘driven-by-a-texter’ steel boxes.
Over the river we sought out a huge mural, painted by Keith Haring, a US artist who used a week of his life while seriously ill to complete it in 1989. He died 8 months later. The Rough Guide bemoans the fact that buses parked at the station (a different one to the looky-looky one) obscuring the art, which may explain why the bus station has now moved around the corner, adding a good 30 minutes to our attempt to track it down.
With the art eyed up, we wandered back through the town, our eyeballs again being pulled sideways into the wonderfully presented shop windows. Shaped chocolate tools (Ju claims she saw a teapot) were my favourite, while we both sniffed at the air of a Lush shop, the bath bombs reminded us of the shop in Nottingham, of home.
We’re holed up in Dave now, with a few French, Italian and a single Brit motorhome for company out in the dimly-lit darkness. A line of perhaps 20 Italian vans are lined up in front of us, mothballed for winter it seems. It feels safe, we’ll sleep well tonight.