This beautiful, historic walled city in Tuscany was Galileo's hometown and once controlled an empire encompassing Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearics and Tunisia. Yet most visitors bother only with one small building ... and only because it embodies a famous architectural error. If you can just ignore the leaning tower for a moment, there's so much more to Pisa.
Pisa? That's where the Leaning Tower is, right?
Arghhh! Didn't you just read my introduction? Visitors to Tuscany are usually over-zealous about searching for the most minor historic sites in Florence or Siena. But once they arrive in Pisa they seem to take on a blinkered zombie state and just troop from the station or car park to the Leaning Tower and back.
Ah, yes. the Tower. Is it open now or what?
Grrr... If you're not careful you'll miss everything else this elegant city has to offer - such as the unique domed baptistery that's 180ft tall and older than that tall tilting structure you keep on about. Or the tiny 14th-century marble chapel on the banks of the Arno built to house a thorn from Christ's crown; or the brilliantly eclectic antique flea market; or the atmospheric riverside hang-out for rebellious writers; or the San Matteo museum with art by Fra Angelico, Donatello, Brueghel and Masaccio in the cloisters of a former Benedictine convent; or the cemetery that uses soil brought back in galleys from the Holy Land by Pisan crusaders. Or even the amazing Duomo.
Yes, I've heard about that. It's next to the Tower isn't it?
It's not only next to it; if the Tower hadn't been so inclined, the Duomo would be the thing to see in Pisa. A vertical Torre Pendente would simply be the cathedral's prettily decorated bell tower.
The Duomo is the centre of the Campo dei Miracoli - Field of Miracles, also confusingly known as the Piazza del Duomo. The baptistery, belltower, cemetery, cathedral and two interesting museums ensure that this extraordinary 1,000-year-old cathedral close is still one of the wonders of the world. That's despite the massed ranks of Tower gawpers, Tower souvenir sellers and Tower photo posers, standing on the Campo apparently pushing against an invisible barrier while a distant friend snaps the world's least humorous holiday photo.
So is this Duomo leaning at all?
No, but it is one of the biggest and best Romanesque churches in the world, with its alternate bands of dark-green and cream marble, like some gigantic Liquorice Allsort. Art historians rave about the west front, bronze doors, 68 classical columns and mosaic decoration.
The huge circular pulpit took early Renaissance artist Giovanni Pisano 10 years to make. Next to it is a bronze lamp that some say inspired Galileo's theory of gravity as it swung from side to side. Others claim he climbed the already delinquent belltower outside to ponder how gravity works.
Ah, I knew we'd get back to the Tower.
Look, I'm not going to go on about the Tower because - as one of the most famous buildings in the world - it already gets more popular attention than its admittedly quirky winding arched gallery and infamously sandy subsoil merit. It will only encourage you to ignore the rest of this intriguing city.
Yes, yes. But can I go up the Tower now please?
OK, I give in... I suppose there is a good view of the whole city and particularly the layout of the Campo from the top. So, here goes: to get up the Tower since the latest restoration work is not that easy. Visits are limited to a maximum of 18 guided tours a day for 40 visitors a time, each lasting 40 minutes. To get on one, you need to book by credit card at least 16 days in advance at www.opapisa.it/boxoffice/. Tickets cost €17 (£12) each and no children under eight are allowed. On the day of the visit, you have to go to the ticket offices in Piazza del Duomo at least an hour before your tour is due to start in order to claim your place.
Errr, forget it, that sounds far too complicated. I'll just buy one of those plastic leaning towers instead. So is there anything else to see in Pisa then?
Apart from all the stuff I've already mentioned, plenty. Take a leisurely walk across the bridges and through the streets along the gentle curve of the Arno river. Locals call them the Lungarni. This is where they'll take their evening stroll, admiring their own fashion sense and smirking knowingly at the rows of noble palazzos untroubled by tourist hordes taking each other's pictures 10 minutes away in the Campo.
Also along the Lungarni are the Museum of Saint Matteo, the church of Saint Maria of the Thorn, Saint Agatha's octagonal church and Palazzo Agostini Venerosi della Seta containing the historic Caffe dell'Ussero, once a meeting place for Garibaldi's followers.
Pisa is one of Europe's oldest university towns, and you can sense the intellectual exuberance in the café-lined Borgo Stretto and Piazza dei Cavalieri which are often teeming with some of the best-dressed students you've ever seen. In a tower on this square in 1288, the Pisans imprisoned a count, his sons and grandsons on suspicion of treason and let them slowly starve to death. Dante immortalised the grim story in his Inferno.
So how do I get there?
Several airlines fly to Pisa from the UK. In August, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) offers return fares from Stansted from around £200. Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.co.uk) offers fares from Gatwick from £119 and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) also from Gatwick for about £200.
Pisa's Galileo Galilei airport is only a mile outside the town. The No 3 bus runs into the town centre, with tickets costing 80 cents (57p) each way. Pisa is also on major train lines connecting it with Rome, Florence, Genoa, Milan and Naples.
For further information, visit www.trenitalia.it. The main railway station is Stazione Centrale, about 20 minutes' walk from the centre. The No 1 bus runs from the station to Campo dei Miracoli. Tickets can be booked by phone or online (00 39 050 560 547; www.opapisa.it). Tickets cost €15 (£10.70) per adult plus an advance purchase booking fee of €2 (£1.40). For security reasons children under eight are not allowed entry to the tower.
For further information, contact the Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).Reuse content