Wednesday, March 18


Our weekend in Pisa almost never happened. We reached Gatwick on Saturday morning a comfortable 75 minutes before our scheduled departure time. We planned to whisk through security with our carry-on luggage and settle down for a hearty breakfast in the First Class lounge. As we entered the departure hall our hearts sank. Ahead lay multiple security queues stretching for 100 metres or more. The race was on to make our flight. For the next 45 minutes we inched forward until security staff finally directed us through the express lane. A quick dash across the terminal saw us reach our plane with barely seconds to spare.

With just a hint of irony, our flight touched down in Pisa 15 minutes ahead of schedule. A short ten-minute cab ride and we were outside our hotel, Relais Dell Orologio. The hotel is located in a renovated fourteenth century tower home built on a quiet, narrow laneway. Thanks to the quirks of the old building each room has its own unique character. Our room, at the far end of the building, featured an exposed cobblestone boundary wall.

When we arrived our room wasn’t ready, so we dropped our luggage in storage and made our way to Piazza dei Miracoli , home of the Leaning Tower or “La Torre di Pisa” as it’s known in Italian. Pisa’s most famous sight was barely a four-minute walk away. Upon entering the Piazza we were greeted by crowds, blue skies and plenty of sunshine; perfect weather for viewing dazzling white marble. We purchased tickets for a mid-afternoon tower tour, took a brief stroll along the Piazza and settled down for a leisurely lunch with the tower as our backdrop.

The tower is wonderful construction. It was built as an architecturally sympathetic bell tower for the city Cathedral. It’s construction began in 1173 and continued for almost two hundred years. By 1185 the first subsidence of its foundations occurred in the soft ground holding its foundations. The subsequent incline resulted in a century-long halt in construction. Work resumed under the guidance of Giovanni di Simone, a talented architect who’d previously worked on the church of San Francesco with its own hazardous bell tower.

As construction continued he demonstrated extraordinary skills in limiting the consequences of the degree of incline. He carefully angled the new construction differently from the old. Today, from the right direction, you can still see that it’s not perfectly straight. Its seventh and final level, including the elegant bell chamber, was finally completed in the mid-14th Century.

When I first visited Pisa in September 1990, the tower was closed to visitors. It had been sealed months earlier as officials began preparations to correct its growing lean. A decade of corrective actions followed during which 38 cubic metres of soil was carefully extracted from underneath it raised end. This work progressively straightened the tower by 45 centimetres, returning it to the same angle it occupied in 1838. The tower reopened to the public in 2001.

Currently the tower currently leans 3.9 m from the vertical. The incline is most noticeable when you walk around its mid-level balconies. It’s an unnerving experience. As you rest against a balcony railing the overwhelming sensation is one of falling even though your feet remain planted firmly on its marble deck. Another breathless stair climb soon finds you perched on the tower’s summit. The white marble structure soars more than 55 metres above the surrounding area, offering a stunning view across the city’s red-tile rooftops.

Jetlag found me wide awake about 4am the following morning. After several restless hours it suddenly occurred to me that I was in Pisa, wide awake, with dawn about to break. While Garry slept I rose and made my way to the Piazza dei Miracoli. The grounds were deserted. I had the entire scene; the cathedral, Baptistery and tower to myself. For the next hour I watched the sun rise over the silent city and its famous tower. A magic moment.

After dawn I made my way through the city’s narrow lanes until, by chance, I came across the city walls. The walls, rising more than ten metres above the surrounding streets, were constructed over a two hundred year period starting around 1154. They’re remarkably well preserved and make for a fascinating sight.

After a leisurely breakfast Garry and returned to the Piazza for a tour of the cathedral itself, the baptistery and the imposing cemetery that dominates its north flank. Almost two centuries were necessary to raise and complete tha Baptismal church dedicated to St.John the Baptist, so much so that the foundation of the monument are in Romanesque style and the upper loggia in Gothic style.

The Baptisery was a fascinating building. As we stood in its upper galleries, the security guard stopped to demonstrates its stunning acoustics. It’s hard to describe the war, reverberations that swelled around us as his baritone slowly voice rose and fell.

We spent our final hours in Pisa wandering the city streets, crossing over the sweeping Arno River and past the picturesque Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina. This delicate Gothic church dates from the early 13th century and is reputed to house a thorn from Jesus’ crown.

However, for me the highlight of our walking tour was the Keith Harding mural painted on the south wall of St. Anthony church. Haring was a young American artist known for his colourful, simple "Subway Drawings". The Pisa mural was his last major piece, completed months before his death from AIDS.

1 comment:

rhonda said...

Great pics, looking forward to reading all about Pisa.