|The Campanile peers coyly around the corner of the Basilica|
June 28, 2013: Pisa was an afterthought. We left Rome in a small rental car, heading up Italy's Autostrade to Florence. We marked ourselves as American tourists by being the only ones to observe the posted speed limit, staying in the far right lane. I was at least grateful that cars steer from the left side, American style, in Italy. Beyond that, it was see, be seen, and stay out of the way of the locals.
It was a beautiful ride, though, through pastures and vineyards bordered by hills topped with fortress towns. Those who live on the mountaintops farm in the valley; there was a time when having a town where you could retreat from roving brigands was a wise and comforting thing. Now, it's just charming.
Florence itself was beautiful and crazy-full of tourists. Needless to say, there was no room at any inn, so we parked and ran the gamut of things-you-must-see on foot, planning to flee the city for quieter climes at the end of the day. First on our list, of course, was Michelangelo's David at the Accademia Gallery.
There are two Davids--the original and a replica which stands outside in the public square. The original was out there once, its eyes turned toward Rome, perhaps as a warning against those who threatened the Florentine Republic. It was later moved inside and the replica left out there in its place. Whatever..if you're in a hurry (and why would you go to Florence in a hurry?)..you can snap a picture and catch a carriage right there at the doorstep. But curb your compulsion to "save time" and do go inside. You're in Florence how often?
After you've seen the gallery..and the real David..it's only a short walk through shop-lined streets to Il Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Fiore, that church whose Brunelleschi dome landmarks Florence for all time.
It's magnificent; the largest brick dome ever constructed, the center of a three building complex begun in 1296..completed for all intents and purposes in 1436. The Basilica is a complex of green, pink and white marble panels. And people come from all over the world to see it.
In these pictures, you may see a lot of scaffolding. When Mary Alice and I were in Italy that summer (1985), it appeared that obscure government officials who sequester in dark hallways of remote government buildings where ordinary mortals never go had come into a windfall of public money and were determined to spend it before Italian lawmakers changed their minds. They were cleaning, refurbishing and hiding national treasures everywhere we went. But we fooled 'em..we took pictures anyway.
Pisa was an afterthought because we could not find hotel space anywhere in Florence. So, we saddled up and went west; the famous Leaning Tower was just down the road. We found a nice little hotel on the way and arrived on site the next day.
Pisa was wonderful and the tower tickled our funny bones.
We could only imagine the day the Pope visited for the first time and the Monsignor had to explain why the campanile (bell tower) seemed to be peering around the corner like that. Actually, nobody knew and nobody could remember the name of the architect, either, which is probably just as well.
The tower was begun in 1173 but, what with one war or another, wasn't completed until about 200 years later. During that time, it started to lean and nobody knew what to do about it, really, so they just kept on going. Stabilization efforts have been done periodically. When we were there, you could go up the tower..later, it was closed for "straightening," and now it's open to the public again.
Walking up the tower is a rare experience. First, you go uphill and then, as you come around, you go downhill, climbing all the while. It's 183 feet tall now on the low side and 186 feet on the high side. When we were there--before recent stabilization--it leaned 5.5 degrees..now it's a mere 3.99.
Whatever the number..as you climb, you see normally straight buildings outside, strengthening the sense of unreality you've developed.
It's a hoot.
Mary Alice and I did all seven stories..the bells are in a room at the top with a walkway circling above. From up there, you have a wonderful view of Pisa and its surroundings, recognizing for the first time that the little town had once been a seaport.
On the way up, you stop to get your breath once in awhile. I caught Mary Alice enjoying the view in bright sunlight pouring through a niche on the upside of the tower.
Take a look at the treads on the old stairway and tell me how many feet have gone up and back down. Remember, the tower was started in 1173. And, yes, as I recall, there were no guardrails on those niches. Not then, anyway.
Mind where you set your foot.
But, in its own roller-coastery way, the climb was fun and we got to the top with all the other tourists in pretty short order.
Looking down into the courtyard reminds you of where you are. There's that lean again.
When we were there, you could stay at the top as long as you liked..giving you time to reflect soberly on the history and art of the thing. You'd heard about the "Leaning Tower of Pisa" all your life--probably long before you had any idea what it really was. To see it and climb it made a lovely day we'd long remember.
I'm pretty sure this poor soul still remembers it, too. The tower gives some people vertigo..and he had it bad. He literally bounced off the walls on his way down..moving so fast it was hard to get his picture. When the building coughed him out at the bottom, he dashed onto the grass and collapsed face down. Nobody said a thing. Everybody sympathized. Everybody grinned, too. Surreptitiously, of course.
Mary Alice stayed in the bell room while I ventured to the very top, intrepid photographer that I am. That's her in the blue shirt, looking up as if to say, "Go up there if you want, this is as far as I'm going."
So we followed the guy who bounced off the walls and went down for a pizza in Pisa.
Pisa an afterthought?
I'm glad we were thinking.
Written in Morgantown, WV 6/28/2013 about a rare day in 1985.
All pictures copyright of Jim Slade. 2013.