Last updated: 02:03 PM ET, Sat December 26 2015

Pisa: Much More Than Just a Leaning Tower

Destination & Tourism | John Roberts | December 26, 2015

Pisa: Much More Than Just a Leaning Tower

Photos by John Roberts

Pisa, for us, is one of those destinations we decided, "We have to do it once just to say we did."

My wife, Colleen, and I knew that it was going to be overcrowded and had heard again and again from other travelers that, "There's not much else there to see." 

It's such an iconic sight, we felt we had to go during our port stop in Livorno, Italy, this summer during our cruise on Regent Seven Seas Mariner. 

Pisa sits in the picturesque Tuscany region of central Italy, and the city is about a 45-minute drive from the Livorno cruise port. Along the way, we passed through the scenic countryside, with sprawling fields filled with olive trees and vineyards. We also drove past Camp Darby, the U.S. Army’s massive Italian garrison. The complex is officially called Darby Military Community, and the base has been there since the early 1950s.   

In ancient times, Pisa was a port city, alongside the Ligurian Sea. But its location on the Arno River's alluvial plain and centuries of silt runoff from the river cut off Pisa from the sea. Now, swarms of tourists reach Pisa by shuttle bus, and we found ourselves in the middle of the invading hordes on a hot, sunny day.

Exiting our shuttle bus (you also can take a train from Livorno to Pisa; about 20 minutes each way; $6 roundtrip) we immediately were set upon by vendors walking the parking lot. They were all selling the same four or five items that absolutely no one seemed to want. Sunglasses, selfie-sticks, handbags and hats, available by the thousands, at every turn.

It was both frustrating and sad. Nearly all of these vendors were immigrants from Africa, all crowding the same space and selling the exact same items. That business model is built to fail.

The tourists (us) all had sunglasses and selfie sticks already. “Anybody here with a cold bottle of water?” I wondered. I'd pay a premium for that!

Did I mention it was hot? We shuffled our way toward the gates to the Square of Miracles, and there it was: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is a fascinating structure, to be sure. How is that thing staying up, 180 feet tall and leaning at four degrees?

How about we snap a few of the obligatory "perspective" pics, pretending to hold up the tower? Yup, we went all in with our Pisa visit and joined in the spectacle among the hundreds of others pulling off their individual takes on this tradition.

I don't like sites that end up with hundreds of tourists in the background of my pictures, but it's not possible to avoid that at Pisa. Plus, you're not really going to get a unique photo of this place anyhow. It's all been done before, from some angle, by somebody ... who probably has a better camera, so why fight it?

Now, to get my cutesy image with the icon of Pisa. My brilliant idea: put my shoulder into it, while the wife lines it up just right to make it look real. Click! "OK, lemme check that out honey."

Pretty good. Except, Colleen angled the camera is such a way that makes the tower lean in the direction opposite of its true tilt! Now, that is a unique photo. Perhaps I was wrong.

Italians are proud of the structure, and projects over the past century have aimed to save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapse. Some made the tower less stable and its lean worse, but a 1990s plan reduced it by about 20 inches and fended off collapse for another 200 years. That is, if an earthquake doesn't bring it down. You see, its very existence is relatively delicate.

In essence, that must be why it's so popular. I think the tower represents the imperfection and mortality of humans, in a way.

Moving on, we headed to the square, a UNESCO World Heritage site formerly known as “Piazza del Duomo,” but now dubbed “Piazza dei Miracoli” (“Square of Miracles”), which is home to several other remarkable buildings.

The cathedral, Duomo di Pisa, is a gorgeous marble building with bronze doors, built in 1093. The baptistry is a huge dome-shaped Romanesque building featuring a pulpit from the early Renaissance period. There is also a walled cemetery, Campo Santo, that is home to frescoes dating to 1360. 

Elsewhere, in the 6.5-mile circuit of medieval walls, you wander to find a mostly serene university town, with daily life carried on in the midst of several other architectural gems, like 12th and 13th century churches, the Royal Palace and redbrick Guelph Tower.

Wander to the vast Piazza Carrara to check out the historic palace buildings and the statue of Ferdinand I de Medici, before finding your way back along alleyways to settle down for a fresh-made pizza and cold beer at an inviting alfresco eatery.

You have to suffer the crowds to enjoy the famous sites of Pisa, especially during the peak tourist season, but you'll find more to discover if you stretch your legs and venture deeper into the city.

Pisa Fast Facts:

The birthplace of scientist Galileo Galilei.

Population: about 90,000, with 45,000 university students.

University of Pisa founded in 1343.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has 294 steps; only 30 people at a time are allowed in to climb to the top (tickets $16).

Construction on the tower, which originally was to be a bell tower, began in 1173. 

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