Rebecca Underwood finds there’s more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower.
Pisa, in the Italian region of Tuscany, continues to attract millions of international visitors and the vast majority make haste to the Piazza dei Miracoli, recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.
This is the location of the extraordinary La torre pendente, known as the ‘leaning tower’, Il Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta; Pisa’s magnificent cathedral, the Baptistry of St John, and the cemetery, completed in 1464.
Construction of the Romanesque free-standing bell tower began in 1173 but the foundations proved to be insufficient due to soft ground on one side causing the incline. Completed in 1372, the tower continued to tilt and it wasn’t until 1990 that work began to reduce the lean, ensuring stability. Today, hardy souls are welcome to climb the 251 steps and with an admission limit of 45 entrants at a time, speed is essential. Those that do undertake this gruelling task will be richly rewarded with a glorious view.
I prefer to remain on terra firma, and took a leisurely stroll around the tower, which leads to the cathedral’s entrance. Dating back to 1064, the façade features mosaic and marble in a multitude of shades and bronze decorations, including a copy of the griffin, a large bronze sculpture, thought to be of Islamic origin, and said to date back to the 11th century. The original griffin is on display in the cathedral museum along with an extensive selection of exhibits, removed from the Piazza dei Miracoli during the on-going restoration projects.
The Baptistery of St. John is just a few steps away and, at 54 metres in height and a circumference of 34 metres, it is the latest in Italy. Constructed in 1152, the lower half of the building reflects the Romanesque style and the upper is a fine example of Gothic architecture. I headed up to the higher gallery to experience the acoustics, created as a result of the double dome, and every thirty minutes an attendant gives a brief vocal performance to demonstrate the reverberating sounds to an astonished audience. Those blessed with a tuneful voice may wish to participate. Alas, I sometimes forget that I am not one of them.
Following my disappointing performance I made my way to La Locanda dei Pisani Doc on via Pietro Toselli and ordered the delicious pasta with clams and pesto accompanied by a glass of 2016 Vermentino Toscaco, which were served with typical Tuscan style. The décor of this charming restaurant follows a theme related to the historic Battle of the Mezzo Bridge, which is re enacted every summer by two teams made up of members of local communities. Dressed in splendid 16th century Spanish costumes, the battle to control the bridge lasts throughout the night and it is a highlight of Pisa’s cultural events.
Pisa is ideal for explorers who wish to walk everywhere and of course location is everything when energy levels subside. There is a wide choice of hotels to suit every budget but rather than being confined to one room and restricted by hotel meal times I chose to stay in Le Rose Apartment, which is located on Via della Spina, within walking distance to Pisa Centrale railway station and all the city’s main attractions, and is ideal.
Featured on booking.com, this two-bedroom apartment offers a more traditional experience. Light and airy with antique furniture and sparkling chandeliers, the property features a large lounge with a dining area, a kitchen with every modern appliance, a laundry room, and separate balconies wrapped around the master bedroom, lounge and kitchen, which are perfect for a pre dining tipple.
For a spot of retail therapy you don’t need to go far. I walked along Corso Italia, the main shopping street but for those of us who prefer a more elegant and less frantic shopping experience, cross over the Ponte di Mezzo, spanning the Arno River, which leads to Borgo Stretto and Borgo Largo. There are medieval arches and palazzos galore with an enormous array of boutiques, antique shops and coffee shops enticing passers-by. Attracted by the locals enjoying a late alfresco lunch at the Anita Osteria on Piazza del Pozzetto, I ordered the succulent Cacciucco; a hearty fish stew. I raised my glass of 2013 Guado Al Tasso Bolgheri Doc Superiore in the air, and accompanied by a local busker’s tuneful violin, I announced ‘Pisa, Ti amo!’
Booking.com research reveals that 34 per cent of travellers believe that they are being held back by struggles to find accommodation. However, the site offers everything from apartments, holiday homes, family run B&B’s, tree houses and even igloos. For more information on the featured ‘Le Rose Apartment’ visit Booking.com.
Take advantage of a punctual and reliable service from either London Heathrow or Gatwick direct to Pisa. And for friendly staff, easy check-in procedures and very competitive rates visit britishairways.com
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‘Stop-over in Forte dei Marmi’
Hop on the train from Pisa Centrale and in less than an hour you’ll be in the very chic Forte dei Marmi, a Versilian sea-side town, which is a popular destination for well-heeled locals and overseas visitors.
Forte dei Marmi; ‘the marble fortress’, sits in the town’s main square. Built in 1788, during the reign of Grand Duke Leopold, brother of Marie Antoinette and who later became Leopold II Holy Roman Emperor. The fortress provided a defence against marauding pirates and was also used to store marble, quarried from the Apuan Alps, the source of Carrara marble used to construct Rome’s Pantheon and Trajan’s Column.
Forte dei Marmi’s tourism dates back to the late 18th century when Italian royalty and nobility visited the town to take advantage of the pinewood air, bathe in the warm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea and to relax on the beautiful sandy beaches. Today Forte dei Marmi attracts visitors from all over Europe and it certainly retains its glamour.
The opulent Grand Hotel Imperiale, located on via Mazzini, is within walking distance to the beach and the centre of the town. The property provides a spa, sauna, gymnasium, Turkish bath, and a gorgeous and tranquil outdoor swimming pool with parasols and comfortable sun loungers; the perfect spot for an afternoon snooze. The hotel also offers guests a bathing station, located on Alpermare Beach, which is only 800 metres from the property, and includes tents furnished with sun-beds and deckchairs, a sun chaise, a table, and storage for towels and bathrobes.
The hotel accommodations are elegantly furnished and reflect the soothing pastel hues of the lush interiors. I stayed in a spacious suite with an ultra- comfortable bed and a separate lounge with a plumb sofa and a 40” flat screen TV. The hotel offers three dining venues and I opted for the elegant Olivo d’oro Restaurant with large windows overlooking the pool. The menu includes a wide range of Mediterranean dishes and I sampled the Baretta Imperiale; succulent clams and mussels with cherry tomatoes and baretta pasta. Served with aplomb, by Luca, the handsome restaurant manager, and, at his suggestion, accompanied by a glass of 2017 Vermentino grape, the dining and the overall experience was one to savour.
For more information visit grandhotelimperiale.it