Greeted by a crowd of anti-war demonstrators, waving (or draped in) rainbow pace flags, 50 yards from Pisa’s Centrale Station, we stood at a large tourist map in the open square to plot our next move. What would we encounter past the demonstrators? Would we discover more of the same, angry Italians hurling insults or rocks at us, the traveling war-mongering American pigs? Should we opt for a taxi ride to the leaning tower, avoiding, for better or worse, what lay between here and there?
We interpreted the presence of a large tourist map as a symbol that it was safe to walk in downtown Pisa. Armed with neither a guidebook nor a clue, we ventured forth on foot not knowing what to expect. Our reward awaited.
In USA Today the previous week, we read of anti-war demonstrations in Pisa, and today was no different. Despite our sympathies for anti-war causes, we spoke Spanish as we navigated our way past the demonstrators, attempting to hide our American-ness, which likely was impossible.
We had not heard anything positive about Pisa. Prior to our visit, other travellers were willing to share their views. They discouraged us, explaining that Pisa is only worth an hour’s visit, just long enough for a photo opportunity—you know the one—“look, mom, I’m holding up the Leaning Tower”.
Three weeks later, long after our return, I read an article which added perspective to our friends’ comments. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the classic bus tour stopover: step out, take a photo and a one-hour tour of the cathedral. Then walk across the Duomo to the merchants’ stalls lining the street, their cubicles stocked with leaning mugs and Leaning tower candlesticks, little statues of David (for those who missed the souvenir shops in Florence, I must assume), and scads of Pinnochios in all shapes and sizes. This is the Pisa the tourist experiences: sixty minutes, twenty photos, and fifty Euros of knickknacks which will be uncovered in their estate sales. It has all come together; this is why people do not enjoy Pisa. They look, but they do not experience.
We arrived at the train station and checked our luggage, leaving us free to wander at leisure. Fresh from a visit to the Italian coast, city life was at once strange and welcoming. Our walk meandered through a pedestrian street, scarcely populated this afternoon, save some teenagers, some tourists, and a dozen police officers, which added to our uneasiness. Most of the stores, from pharmacies to bookstores and clothing shops closed in the mid afternoon, as they were elsewhere in Italy. The street life was concentrated in cafes, which overflowed with people enjoying the sunny afternoon with friends. We stopped in a department store to find ourselves nearly alone, sharing the building with only bored clerks and a handful of shoppers.
In the streets people spoke Italian, instead of the myriad languages (primarily English) which we heard around the tourist sites. From a café window, we watched young skaters sitting at the base of a statue, with only their fashions to differentiate them from American youth. When the stores opened, we wandered about, exploring bookstores and shops, debating European fashion and the price of blue jeans in Europe.
The streets changed names as we crossed rivers and bridges, stopping for photos and gelato. We took care to stay on the beaten path, afraid of wandering around in a strange city in a time when Americans were not popular, down alleys spray painted with threats: “Yankee Go Home”. Mapless, wandering along Renaissance streetplans, we wondered how they could have done such a great job of hiding a landmark as large as the Leaning Tower. We turned a corner and there it stood (or leaned) a block away–as if we alone had discovered it. This must be more memorable than capturing your first sighting from a bus window. Perhaps it is because my legs were worn from the walk and I must comfort myself that my reward was greater than theirs.
I will attempt to describe the Leaning Tower to you, but my words are ill-matched to the wonder we felt. I could write a dissertation on how difficult it is to capture the essence of a moment like this. Dude, it’s way cool. The Leaning Tower looks exactly like it does in the postcards, but it is the experience which is special. It seems to lean more in real life; we wonder how this structure could have stood for 500 years without toppling. From here, we walked up close to study the architectural details, the columns on each floor, the concrete reinforcements which helped to freeze the Tower in its near-erect state. It is quite narrow, adding to the illusion of height, even though it is only 180-something feet high. During our visit, the tip of the tower was encased in scaffolding, as if they were building a revolving restaurant.
The duomo & baptistery sharing the Piazza del Duomo with the tower (aka campanile) were equally impressive architecturally, and I decided to read a travel guide once I am back home to learn more.
I have doubts that I will ever return to Pisa. We live in such a big world with so many attractions, but I don’t regret my afternoon in Pisa. My greatest happiness is not that I visited Pisa, but that I experienced it by foot instead of a bus tour.
Like Graceland, the Leaning Tower is something I am happy to have experienced once. If it were closer I would visit again and again.