Pisa: A little leaning goes a long way

There is so much more than a wonky tower, not least that it has remained a real town
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Surprisingly for a city that is home to one of the world's great tourist sights, Pisa is the Cinderella of Tuscany. Visitors head in throngs for the Leaning Tower before departing for the more seductive delights of Florence and Siena, apparently unaware of Pisa's other attractions.

Surprisingly for a city that is home to one of the world's great tourist sights, Pisa is the Cinderella of Tuscany. Visitors head in throngs for the Leaning Tower before departing for the more seductive delights of Florence and Siena, apparently unaware of Pisa's other attractions.

All rather puzzling, because the Torre Pendente is just one of Pisa's many cultural and aesthetic charms. The city was one of the Mediterranean's most important ports between the 11th and 13th centuries, and that wealthy legacy is still visible in the abundance of churches and palaces. It is a university city, priding itself on an intellectual heritage that takes in the mastermind of Galileo Galilei.

Today, Pisa has one of the most culturally packed squares in Europe, many charming churches and delightful piazzas, while walls and buildings are bathed in those restful Tuscan ochres, browns and yellows. To its great credit, Pisa remains a thriving town, where normal people go about their daily business doing routine jobs unrelated to the tourist industry. Yes, the stalls around the tower will sell you as many Leaning Tower cigarette lighters as you could wish for but, refreshingly, elsewhere you are more likely to find hardware shops selling kitchen mops and spare parts for Vespas - as well as a seemingly endless choice of cafés in which to sip espresso and watch the real world go by.

When to goRight now, or at least before the tourist season kicks in. In summer, the whole town resembles a London-bound commuter train on a bad day. But go outside the high season and Pisa comes into its own, offering a rural, small-town atmosphere in which waiters, market stallholders and shop assistants appear unaffected by the gold mine that is the seasonal tourist trade.

However, if it is spectacle that you are after, festival month is June, when a huge jousting competition, the Gioco del Ponte, takes place along the banks and bridges of the Arno, and a regatta involving helmsmen from Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Genoa is staged.

Getting thereBritish Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies from Gatwick daily from £149 return, not including tax. Other options include Alitalia (tel: 0870 5448259) via Milan from £165 return including tax, and Ryanair (tel: 0870 1569569; net: www.ryanair. com), which flies from Stansted from £70 return plus tax. These cheap fares, together with Pisa's location on the coastal train line from north to south (Naples is just four hours away) and its proximity to Florence (one hour by train) make it an ideal arrival point for many holidays in Italy.

Where to stayThe Royal Victoria, 12 Lungarno Pacinotti (tel: 0039 050 940111) offers a taste of what it must have been like on a 19th-century Grand Tour. Wide marble staircases lead to spacious rooms where even the radiators are ornately decorated. Follow the advice in the lift and walk down from your room to explore the landings and their pictures of the Pisa of yesteryear. Rooms overlooking the Arno cost from £60.

Almost as luxurious but with less atmosphere is the Villa Kinzica, Piazza Arcivescovado 2 (tel: 0039 050 560419), right beside the Leaning Tower and with some rooms offering views of it. Rooms from £53.

Those on a budget should book into the next-door Albergo Gronchi (tel: 0039 050 561823) where the same views will cost you just £20 in low season. A little further away, the Hotel Di Stefano, Via S Apollonia (tel: 0039 050 553559), is comfortable and quiet, with rooms from £40 a night.

What to seeAlthough it has become such a touristic cliché, the merits of Pisa's campanile, the Leaning Tower, should not be overlooked. In fact it is an incredible piece of work. Begun in 1173, it started to lean even after the first few metres had been built, proudly resisting all attempts to make it stand up and behave sensibly. You can no longer walk up it, but its pronounced slant remains a startling sight. Fortunately, the use of counter-weights and steel bands have arrested the gradual shift and ensured a reasonably secure future for the bell tower, though the rescue operation has left an unsightly mess at the foot of it.

The tower's fame has also tended to overshadow the other offerings in the vicinity. Not for nothing is the tower located in the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). The stupendous Duomo is built of white and dark marble, and is said to represent the height of Pisan Romanesque architecture.

Nearby, the Baptistery is similarly immaculate, its circular construction combining Roman and Gothic designs. Don't expect too much quiet contemplation here, though: curators and schoolboy visitors take great delight in displaying the building's impressive echoing capabilities.

Curiously, both the Duomo and the Baptistery lean in sympathy with the campanile. A late-evening visit to the Campo dei Miracoli, after a bottle of wine or two, leaves one with the impression that the three wonders have also enjoyed a night on the town and, tired and emotional, have slumped sideways for greater support.

Nearby is the monumental Camposanto, or cemetery. Given its ornate, often overly indulgent tombs of the great and good, a visit here is like stepping back into Pisa's past. It is a vault-like construction that looks like the giant ribcage of a skeletal great whale. A few frescoes survived bombing during the Second World War; among them are bloodcurdling 14th-century depictions of Hell that will make even the most ardent atheist pause for thought.

The best views of all of the tower are to be had from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which houses many of the original artefacts from the cathedral. Ignore the advice of the usually reliable Baedeker, which gives the museum a sniffy one star. Instead, sit in the garden - you'll probably have it to yourself - with the tower looming overhead and cross your fingers that the whole thing doesn't finally decide to topple over into your lap.

A combined ticket of just £5 buys you admission to all the above sites. Away from this glut of religious and architectural genius, take a stroll to the church of Santa Caterina on the Piazza Martiri di Liberta, a lovely square decked out with plane trees, and wander along the banks of the Arno to the church of Santa Maria della Spina, so called because it houses a thorn said to come from Christ's crown.

The town's other centre of activity is Piazza dei Cavalieri, the setting of the former palace of the medieval knights who ruled Pisa, which is surrounded by delicate and crooked alleyways and shaded gardens.

Food and drinkThe presence of a large, impecunious student community in Pisa means that food is often cheap and served in large portions, though those wanting to stretch their plastic will find plenty of opportunities to do so. Meals can be hearty and you will often find wild boar on the menu. There are dozens of bars and pasticcerias where a coffee and a pastry or a panino will cost no more than £1.

Particularly nice places to while away the day include Bar Moderno, Via dei Mille 10, near Piazza Cavalieri, and La Delizia, whose name does not lie (across from the train station, at Corsa Italia 154).

For a substantial meal, head for Osteria del Tinti, Vicola del Tinti 26 (tel: 0039 050 580240). Typical of many Pisan restaurants, it is family-run and its handwritten menu offers excellent seafood dishes such as red mullet, and spiedini di maiale - skewered spiced cubes of pork cooked with bay leaves. Around £12 a head.

Further west is Il Campano, Via Cavalca 44 (tel: 0039 050 580585), set in a lovely building, where the oversized pizzas are very popular. Around £7 a head. La Grotta, Via Casa Pipinte, at the crossroads with Via S Francesco (tel: 0039 050 578105), is a more upmarket and stylish choice, at around £15 a head. And don't forget to wash it all down with wine from a long list of top-quality Tuscan vintages, including Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the ubiquitous Chianti. A bottle of quality plonk will cost from £5 up to £30, though this uneducated palate found the house wine, rarely more than £1.50 a litre, just as pleasant.

If you fancy a change from pasta, then head for Ambaraba, just off Via Curtatone e Montanara, near the waterfront (tel: 0039 050 576797), where you can enjoy couscous and a wide selection of real ales for around £6 a head.

Last, odd as it may sound, Galileo Galilei airport has an excellent but cheap self-serve restaurant that puts Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted to shame. This is the place to eat before a flight with a no-frills airline or spend those remaining L1,000 coins.

Out of townJust seven miles away is Certosa di Pisa, a beautiful 14th-century Carthusian monastery set in the dramatic foothills of Monte Pisao (closed on Sunday afternoon and Mondays). Guided tours take in the spartan cells of the monks - members of the Medici clan used to come here on occasion for retreat from the everyday strains of ruling Florence and plotting internecine murders. Sadly, such an option is no longer available.

Deals and packagesMagic Cities (tel: 020-8563 8959) offers three-night breaks in a four-star hotel in Pisa from £331 per person based on two people sharing; and Cresta Holidays (tel: 0870 1610900) offers a three-night stay at the four-star Hotel Cavalieri in Pisa, from £380 per person based on two sharing.

Further information In the UK, contact the Italian Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (tel: 020-7408 1254; e-mail: enitlond @globalnet.co.uk.

In Pisa, contact the multilingual tourist office (tel: 0039 050 40096; fax: 0039 050 40903), which has offices at the railway station and the airport.

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