Known around the world for its iconic leaning tower, the city of Pisa sits quietly among the hills in the northerrn region of Tuscany. Whilst a popular student center, this calming location remains an areas of understated Italian elegance. On a week long journey, we tuned in to the relaxed pace of life and found out what it is that draws visitors back to Pisa time and time again.
Stepping out of the car and into the golden sunshine at our San Lorenzo residence, the first thing that struck me was how happy the people walking around looked. Maybe its the sunshine, maybe its the pretty surroundings, but the air in Pisa does seem to do some good in lifting mood. Looking about us, we immediately at ease in our surroundings and happy to be in the centre of the beautiful Old Town. Locals, shopkeepers and deliverers go about their business, all too busy to notice the newbie tourists in town. Well dressed shoppers walk with purpose down the narrow streets with retailers still open for business in spite of it being 7.30pm. This is the city view that is harder and harder to find these days, but Pisa has it in spades.
The streets here are named mostly after Saints and you will need to pay some notice to where you are. With the streets rarely keeping a straight line and the majority of houses being a similar sun-tanned clay, it is sometimes difficult to keep your bearings. If you get lost or are in doubt, aim for the unmistakeable sight of the leaning tower.
Ah the tower. Whatever preconceptions you have about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, forget them. From the moment you see the white marble pillar floors reaching up above the cityscape, you will be in awe of it. I completely underestimated how lovely this stunningly carved and wonky work of art is. The angle of the tower is astounding, (you will find yourself leaning your head to one side), and somewhat reminiscent of a many pillared cake. In fact, my favourite fact from the visit was that the builders realised three floors into construction that the tower was crooked, but carried on building anyway! This twelfth century tower is open to walk inside so please, book your tickets in advance and walk to the top for the best Pisa and mountain views. It is worth every penny.
Around the tower is the UNESCO heritage site named Piazza del Miracoli or Square of Miracles. Housing three structures believed to respresent the three stages of life, you will find the Baptistry, the Cathedral de Santi Maria Assunta with its fantastic duomo and the graveyard. Alongside these are museums housing religious artifacts and artworks. A day could easily be spent looking around this beautiful square and all its attractions.
But the city of Pisa still calls and the theme of your tour will be enjoyment. The dappled streets are a delight to walk around with splashes of green grasses and trees decorating the rustic streets. Allow yourself to get lost among the tall, Tuscan style buildings as you wander the centre and browse the boutiques and shops for local treasures. Secret side streets will take you on a tour of piazzas, arches and churches or gaze at the riverbank views of the River Arno on its ever-constant course through the centre of the City. There seems to be a zest for life feel to this city and its not just the oranges and lemons growing on the trees around. Everyone you pass seems to be smiling and how could you be unhappy with these surroundings and the lovely balmy heat.
The city has many parks and green spaces to explore including the open air cinema at the park and ruins around the Forta Fiorentina, as well as visiting the botanical gardens or Orto Botanico. This desert bloom is hot and varied with a flora collection from all over the world.
When the hunger pangs hit, you will find authentic restaurants aplenty, all boasting freshly cooked cuisine with fish caught that day. Many restaurants bake their own bread and pasta each day and the desserts are divine. The Italians eat late which is perfect, giving you the time to retreat to your Italian home for an afternoon siesta before heading out for a twilight dinner. Recommendations for a good meal include the Spaghetteria Alle Bandierine with its beautiful decor and authentic Italian menu and Il Peperoncino where the Manager shakes every customer by the hand and every forkful of food was delicious.
After spending a few days like this, time seems to slow to a crawl and it would be so easy to let your days drift along in a bubble of relaxing, eating and exploring. If you can pull yourself out of the city for some sightseeing, Pisa itself is well located for tourists wishing to explore further afield. The list below contains many of the popular destinations that can be reached by from Pisa Centrale station:
Rome – Approx 4 hours
Florence – Just under 2 hours
Lucca – 40 mins
Livorno – 1 hour 20 mins
Siena – 2 hours
Cinque Terre – Just under 2 hours
Pisa was the perfect location for a chilled break. We happily ventured out and around the city to busier spots and know that we could head back at any point to our Italian palazzo for some wine and antipasto in our own quiet space, (read about the Relais Sassetti below). While the modern part of the city was lively and welcoming, the Old Town for me was the most fascinating part of Pisa. If you can find accommodation in the old town, I would absolutely recommend this as part of a more authentic experience. Pisa offers you all of Italy’s charm, style and elegance but with less of the tourism, queues and crazy hiked up prices. This city lets you pause from the busy pace of everyday life. This city lets you breathe and just be.
Accommodation extra: Relais Sassetti
An oasis of calm in the heart of the old city in Pisa. The Relais Sassetti is a happy residence owned by the friendly hostess Simona and her family. Two rooms are available for those seeking Pisa accommodation, meaning you are guaranteed some peace and quiet during your stay. We had our own section of the courtyard to relax in as well as our own place to enjoy the daily breakfast with fresh coffee and juice, included in the price of your stay. You will find this laid out ready for you at a time of your choosing every morning. In fact, nothing was too much trouble during our stay at this fabulous location – on our day trips an early breakfast was arranged, extra light brought out while we enjoyed a night-time drink and taxi arrangements made for our trip to the airport.
The rooms were clean and very comfortable. There is additional seating in the pretty and secluded courtyard among the climbing plants and lime trees and we loved the feature of seeing the pair of pet tortoises toddling along. Think of spending the evening looking at the stars in the courtyard with a glass of delicious Chianti and relaxing in the shaded garden chairs after a long day out.
We could not have wanted for more and would return to the Relais Sassetti in a heartbeat on future trips to Pisa. For those of you seeking a slice of Italian life pie, this place is for you.
Leaning Tower and attractions: For information and ticket booking – www.opapisa.it
Relais Sassetti: www.relaissassetti.it or check out trip advisor for booking options
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Check out Finding Florence for another slice of my trip to Italy