48 hours in Pisa
Pisa's most famous landmark is the Leaning Tower, but recent engineering work means it doesn't lean as much as it used to and could re-open soon. Though much of the city was bombed in the Second World War, its charm remains intact. And, this being Italy, there's no dearth of museums, bars and restaurants. By Tony Grant
Saturday 29 September 2001
Because the Leaning Tower may be about to open to the general public – for the first time in 10 years. It closed after reports that it was about to collapse. Now, after an extraordinary engineering project costing some £20m, the tower's lean has been reduced by nearly 16 inches. Cleaning and restoration work remains to be done and the announcement of the opening date is still awaited. It was hoped to be November – but now January looks more likely, although some suggest that it may be years before the public will be permitted to scale this 800-year-old symbol of Pisa again.
The cheapest flights to Pisa from Britain are with Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. Fares vary, but if you are flexible on dates you should find something for £100 return or less. Trailfinders (020-7937 1234) currently has direct return flights from Gatwick with British Airways from £120.50 until the end of the year, and from Glasgow and Manchester with Lufthansa via Frankfurt from £195 until 14 December. The airport is just a five-minute train ride from Pisa Centrale Station or you can catch a bus from the airport into the centre.
For five-star luxury right by Pisa Centrale Station head to Hotel Cavalieri, Piazza della Stazione 2 which has doubles for L350,000 (£111) (00 39 050 43290). The Royal Victoria, Lungarno Pacinotti 12 (00 39 050 940 111). is a historic three-star hotel overlooking the River Arno with doubles for L185,000 (£59). For a one-star hotel close to the Leaning Tower try the Gronchi, Piazza Arcivescovado 1, (00 39 050 561 823) which has rooms from L62,000 (around £19.75).
Get your bearings
Pisans will tell you that there's much more to see than just the Piazza dei Miracoli, the 'Square of Miracles' which lies to the north of the city. But it is here that the millions of visitors flock each year to see the Leaning Tower, the Cathedral and the Baptistry as well as two museums: dell'Opera del Duomo and delle Sinopie. Also close by is the Campo Santo, a 13th-century cemetery. Back in the 13th century, Archbishop Ubaldo de'Lanfranchi decided that the mortal remains of Pisans should be buried in the precious earth of the Holy Land. So he commissioned a special fleet of ships to travel there and bring home tens of thousands of tons of soil from the hill outside Jerusalem on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Pick up a map in the tourist office in Via Cammeo 2 next to the Piazza dei Miracoli or in the office outside the train station.
Lunch on the run
Home-made spaghetti is the speciality at Alle Bandierine in Via Mercanti, close to the Ponte di Mezzo (00 39 050 500 000). Not just boring old Bolognese, but a huge selection of pasta served with meat, fish and herbs. A full meal, with wine, won't cost you much more than a tenner.
Pisa is dissected, east to west, by the River Arno. The city boasts a number of fine churches both north and south of the river and other principal sights include the Piazza dei Cavalieri and the nearby Borgo Stretto, one of the oldest and most picturesque streets in the city, lined with arcades and the palaces of the city's noble families. The National Museum of San Matteo (00 39 050 541 865) is situated in an old Benedictine monastery on the Lungarno Mediceo and contains crucifixes by Giunta Pisano and Berlinghiero Berlinghieri as well as Nino Pisano's statue known as the Madonna del Latte.
The strong pound can, of course, lull you into a dangerously false sense of security. And the prices in the big shopping streets Corso d'Italia and Borgo Stretto, linked by the Ponte di Mezzo , certainly compare favourably with those in Britain. Best buys include Italian designer clothes, shoes, kitchen and tableware, Parmesan and olive oil. Don't forget your model of the Leaning Tower from the stalls around the edges of the Piazza dei Miracoli.
Visitors from northern European climes can be surprised that despite the array of attractive beverages and bars, Italians are not big drinkers. Nevertheless it is perfectly acceptable to drink corretto at breakfast, an espresso containing a shot of cognac or rum. And then there's the wine: Pisa is close to the centre of the Tuscan wine-growing region and not that far from Chianti which provides many of the country's finest wines. The large, ornate Bar Pasticceria Salza 46 Borgo Stretto (00 39 050 580 244) is a famous Pisa bar dating back to 1929, and situated in the fashionable Borgo Stretto close to the river. Pastries and cakes are a speciality.
Dinner with the locals
There's an eating place for every day of the year in Pisa. One which specialises in regional specialities is Trattoria da Bruno (00 39 050 560 818) which you can find in Via Luigi Bianchi 12, close to the Piazza dei Miracoli. If you're hungry, don't miss its zuppa, a very heavy soup made with bread, beans, cauliflower and other vegetables. In warmer weather, though, they'll suggest you try their baccala, a type of salted cod.
Sunday morning – go to church
Pisa had to be virtually re-built after the Second World War, however, thankfully many of its ancient churches survived unscathed. Do visit the Abbey of San Piero a Grado, a masterpiece of Pisan Romanesque, about three miles outside town. This huge atmospheric church was built in the 11th century over a much older basilica and throughout the Middle Ages was a popular place of worship. According to legend, this was where St Peter delivered a sermon shortly after stepping off a boat on his way to Rome from Antioch.
The city centre is full of pizza and spaghetti options; most bars sell tasty, if rather overpriced sandwiches; many grocers (alimentari) will make you a roll with ham (prosciutto) or salami.
Take a ride
A half-hour train ride takes you to the enchanting medieval city of Lucca. Stroll around the walls which circle the city before descending into town; walk through the ancient streets, order an espresso in the bar Puccini used – Di Simo in Via Fillungo, eat a cheap delicious lunch at the jolly Da Leo restaurant close to the church of San Michele, visit the cathedral, see the squares and the historic amphitheatre.
A walk in the park
Pisa's Botanical Gardens (00 39 050 911 350), situated half way between the Leaning Tower and the river, boast a dazzling collection of local plants as well as a fine collection of trees from all around the world, some more than two hundred years old. Admission is free.
Write a postcard
Choose from a large selection of cards featuring Italian footballers, regional dishes and the Leaning Tower itself, and take time out to write it in the Piazza dei Miracoli.
The icing on the cake
If you're lucky enough to be able to climb to the summit of the Leaning Tower, the view which awaits you of the Tuscan countryside, the mountains and the sea, is a spectacular one. But scaling the 293 steps can be an alarming experience: the staircase is steep as you struggle northwards and you're thrown sideways as you face west or east. Opt for a breather at one of its first six storeys and you'll be alarmed to note there are no safety barriers to prevent you plunging to the ground. Once at the top, there are safety rails... and you'll be glad of them if the huge bells start ringing while you're up there.
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