Pisa: Tuscany's leaning attraction

There's more to the city than a photo-opportunity en route to the countryside, says Mark Rowe

It leans. Of course it does. That's why you're here. But the majority of visitors take their picture of Pisa's iconic campanile and hotfoot it to the Tuscan hinterland. It's an oversight, because this is a pleasant university city, striking for its churches, galleries and snaking streets. The town also hosts a summer of historically cherished and uncontrived festivals, headlined by the Luminara di San Ranieri on 16 June, when Pisans with torches line the River Arno in their thousands, against an illuminated backdrop of candlelit waterfront buildings. The Gioco del Ponte (Game of the Bridge) on 30 June sees opposing teams from north and south of the river dressed in Renaissance uniforms, in various tug-of-war competitions across the Ponte di Mezzo.

There really is nowhere else to start but at the leaning tower and its accompanying ensemble of architectural highlights, positioned in a square named Piazza dei Miracoli. The skewed bell tower (www.opapisa.it; €18; daily 8am to 8pm) is an exquisite wonder, started in 1173 and topped with a band of black and white Pisan marble in 1372.

Also on the square are Pisa's other heavyweights, all of which also slump slightly drunkenly on their soft foundations: the circular baptistery (€5; daily 8am to 8pm), the camposanto (00 39 050 835011; €5; daily 8am to 8pm) and the duomo (daily 10am to 8pm; free but obtain a ticket from ticket office). The best view of the tower is from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (00 39 055 230 2885; www.opapisa.it; €5; daily 8am to 8pm), where the campanile all but tumbles into a serene garden courtyard.

Head south down Via Roma, turn left on to Via Angelo Galli Tassi then right to the university botanical gardens at 5 Via Luca Ghini (00 39 050 221 1310; www.biologia.unipi.it/ortobotanico; €2.50; Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5.30pm; Saturday 8.30am to 1pm). This is a secluded gem, with enchanting octagonal 16th-century stone ponds.

Turn right down Via Santa Maria towards the river. Before the embankment, you'll come across Pisa's second leaning campanile, the bell tower of St Nicola, which bulges out into the street in a manner that would give British health and safety officials nightmares. From here, it's a skip to the Lungarno Pacinotti, an elevated cornice high above the River Arno that sweeps past an assortment of grand and slightly ramshackle buildings. Head left and pop into the overlooked but excellent Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale at No 46 (00 39 050 926 539; €5, Monday to Saturday, 9am to 1pm) with its clutch of Medici-owned grand masters and sculptures.

Cross the river at the Ponte Solferino and turn left along the Lungarno Gambacorti, towards the spiky spires of Chiesa della Spina (pisaunicaterra.it), a diminutive Gothic marble church that claims to house a thorn from Christ's crucifixion crown.

Turn right down Via Mazzini, before nipping left down the narrow alleyway Via La Nunziatina. You could refuel at the wonderful baker-delicatessen Panificio Bolognese at No 19. The alley leads to Corso Italia, a busy shopping street. Bear left up the Corso to cross the river again via Ponte di Mezzo to Piazza Garibaldi, dominated by a slightly fey statue of the great Italian unifier. Perhaps he's got his mind on the mouth-watering ice creams from La Bottega del Gelato at No 11 on the piazza (00 39 050 575467). Just along Lungarno Pacinotti at No 5 is DeBondt (00 39 050 3160073; www.debondt.it) a high-end chocolate shop.

Continue up Borgo Stretto. Although this is Pisa's swankiest street it is still punctuated by unpretentious cafés beneath restful arched colonnades. One of these is Bar Settimelli at No 34, where a coffee and a focaccia will cost just €4.50. For a visual treat, however, head a few doors up to No 46 and Café Salza (00 39 050 580144; www.salza.it) which serves sumptuous, exquisitely designed cakes.

Opposite Salza, follow the curving Via Dini to Piazza dei Cavalieri, a striking space enclosed by classical architecture. The signature sight is the scratched plaster known as sgraffiti of monster-mermaids on the façade of the Normale University, though there are other arches, clock towers and palaces to make purists purr.

Pass the quietly charming Church of San Sisto to the shady Piazza Felice Cavallotti and flick north along the sleepy Via Don Boschi to avoid the day-tripper restaurant gauntlet of Via Santa Maria. It's worth repeating this walk at dusk to encounter the backlit tower and duomo encircled with flitting bats and swifts. Pisa stirred the creative juices of the Romantic poets as much as anywhere in Italy and you get an inkling at nightfall of what Coleridge was driving at when he talked of the moonlit tower "having something of a supernatural look". Evening also permits appreciation of the little details that get drowned out by the daytime hordes, such as the duomo's three-dimensional bronze doors.

Before leaving, it is worth browsing the souvenir stalls. Few places lend so much panache to tat: leaning tower toilet-roll holder anyone?

Fresh Cuts

Can't get enough of the tower? Book into the newly opened Residenza d'Epoca at 187 Via Santa Maria (00 39 050 560572; relaisimiracoli.it/it), artfully squeezed into two floors above a pasticceria right on the Piazza dei Miracoli. The eight rooms are more thoughtfully furnished than you might expect for such a seller's market and hint at the 19th-century Grand-Tour era. Doubles with breakfast start at €176 (£150), though you'll pay more for a tower view.

The new swish eatery Osteria Bernardo at Piazza San Paolo all'Orto (00 39 050 575216; www.osteriabernardo.it), offers Tuscan dishes such as malfatti (pasta with guinea-fowl sauce), chestnut cake with ricotta cheese, and octopus pasta. About €35 (£30)pp for three courses and wine.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mark Rowe travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 0869; railbookers.com), which offers a three-night short break to Pisa with return overnight train travel from £589pp. The price includes return Eurostar and sleeper travel from Paris to Florence with a connecting train to Pisa and three night's accommodation with breakfast at the NH Cavalieri Hotel.

Pisa airport is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from various UK airports.

Staying there

Hotel Bologna, 57 Via Giuseppe Mazzini (00 39 050 502120; hotelbologna.pisa.it) has doubles from €140 (£120) including breakfast.

Go guided

Guided art tours of the Piazza dei Miracoli take place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while a tour of Pisa's Galileo connections is held on Saturdays in June and September (pisaunicaterra.it/en). Tours cost €10pp (£8.50).

More information

Tourism Information Office, Pisa Centrale train station (00 39 050 42291; pisaunicaterra.it/en).

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