When they arrived, the storms sweeping across Tuscany were loud and dramatic. Thunder rattled the windows in the house where we were staying, it rained so hard the streets resembled rivers. The storm felt like a natural end to days of heat and humidity. We hunkered down, cooked and played cards while outside Pisa received a ‘furious devout drench’**. Fortunately, the storm started in the late afternoon, allowing us time to explore a town that has much more to offer than just a defective tower.
Pisa’s most famous son, Galileo Galilei, said, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” The ‘Father of Modern Science’ was born here in 1564, and he both studied (he never completed his degree) and taught at the university. His words felt like an instruction to explore the town that still resembles the one he would have known. Even the Leaning Tower has a Galileo link, it’s here he’s supposed to have conducted his gravity experiments
For all its fame and history, Pisa is a relaxed and not particularly touristy place outside of the area around the Torre di Pisa. It’s a small spot of around 90,000 people and feels every inch a provincial university town. Its modest size is one reason why many visitors only come for the day, but it also loses out to more alluring destinations like Florence, which bested Pisa militarily back in the 15th century and continues to triumph over its historic rival today.
It’s a shame more people don’t spend a little extra time in Pisa because this is a lovely place to while away a few days, even if you get caught in a storm. To understand the history of Pisa it’s best to start at the sluggish River Arno which loops through the city a few kilometers before emptying into the Ligurian Sea. Lining the banks of the river are fabulous medieval palazzo. The space created by the river allows for truly wonderful views across the town to the Tuscan hills beyond.
Until the 15th century the river was the lifeblood of Pisa, and the city’s wealth and power rivalled that of Venice, Genoa and nearby Florence. Then the river started to silt up and the sea to retreat. Pisa began to lose its preeminent position until, in 1509, it suffered defeat at the hands of Florence. It continued to be a prosperous provincial town with one of the country’s leading universities, but never regained its former status.
The military and economic success of Pisa throughout the medieval period has bequeathed it a glorious cityscape filled with serene piazzas, beautiful palazzi and a lot of churches. There are also a few remaining casatorre, the tall towers attached to the houses of the rich that you find in many towns in this region. Despite the heat, it was wonderful to meander through the quiet streets and discover Pisa.
We strolled along the river from the Ponte della Cittadella, named for the fortress that stood here and which was mostly flattened by Allied bombing in the Second World War. We walked on the southern bank until we reached the pocket-sized Church of Santa Maria della Spina. We crossed the river into the more historic northern half of the city and landed in the grand Piazza dei Cavalieri, with its 16th century palace built for the Knights of St. Stephen.
This is the epicenter of the old town but, in and of itself, not that interesting. We meandered our way back towards the river and lunch in the maze of alleyways behind Piazza Garibaldi, with its memorial to one of the driving forces behind Italian unification in 1861. These streets are filled with small restaurants and delicatessens, and in normal times are where the town’s nightlife is found. Things were quieter when we were there.
After lunch we explored more and headed to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, a large space with an unexpected sight. Next to a 14th century church, opposite a cafe, is a mural by American artist and activist Keith Haring. Tuttomondo was created in 1989, and is a deliberate celebration of life by someone who was seriously ill with HIV and who would die the following year. Why is Haring’s work found in Pisa? A chance encounter with a student from Pisa on a street in New York.
* The beginning of a line in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody that references Galileo (“Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me, (Galileo) Galileo, (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo Figaro magnifico“)
** A phrase stolen from Water a poem by Philip Larkin