A day in Pisa

After a couple of leisurely days in Florence, we1 started looking for nearby places we could visit. Pisa stood out - not only for a chance to see the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, but also for the direct, 49 minute train ride to Pisa central station at an affordable 17.20 € for the both of us.

We reached Pisa around noon. We had plenty of time to visit the famous tower so we took a route that would allow us to see as much of the city as possible2. This being Italy, we first stopped at a local café for an espresso and some cookies.

Our route took us past narrow streets and small local churches whose outside walls were often adorned with brilliant murals of Mary and baby Jesus.

A mural of Mary and Baby JesusA mural of Mary and Baby Jesus

The river Arno bisects Pisa into southern and northern halves. It is roughly half-way between the train station and the Leaning Tower. Moderately busy roads and rows of squat buildings line both sides of the river. The sun-beaten facades of the buildings were painted in shades of ochre, mustard, vermilion, orange and maroon that resplendently reflected in the still water of the river.


We approached the Leaning Tower of Pisa through an unpretentious, residential street. There were cars parked along the approach to the tower’s entrance and for some reason they seemed to be banking in a direction opposite to the tilt of the tower; as if trying to compensate for its tilt.

The Leaning Tower of PisaThe Leaning Tower of Pisa

Tourists were posing for pictures that’d make them look like they were trying to correct the inclination of the tower. The tower has a kind of delicate beauty to it. It isn’t its grandeur that draws millions of visitors to it each year3, but its tilt. The attempts to correct the tilt have been going on for years. Once they straightened it up a little and checked against its further deterioration, they might’ve deliberately stopped short of restoring it to its erstwhile erectness. The Leaning Tower of Pisa sans the Leaning, just wouldn’t draw as many tourists.

The Leaning Tower of PisaThe Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is part of a larger complex of historical buildings that includes a cathedral, a baptistry and monumental cemetery. The entry to the complex is free but if you want to climb the tower, you need to buy a ticket. A separate 8 € 4-in-one” ticket will grant you entry into the cathedral, baptistry, the monumental cemetery and a museum (Sinopie Museum) next to the complex.

When we entered the monumental cemetery (Campo Santo), the sun was beginning to shine weakly from behind the clouds. The traceries of the Gothic windows that lined the cemetery’s large inner hall, cast soft shadows on the wall opposite.

Campo Santo - Murals and ShadowsCampo Santo - Murals and Shadows

The wall was covered in frescos that were faded or erased in parts. One hopes they’ll be restored one day4. The ones you could make out, depicted familiar Biblical themes of saints, Judgement Day, and diabolical visions of hell.

A Mural depicting Judgment DayA Mural depicting Judgment Day

A Mural depicting hellA Mural depicting hell

The room was lined with sarcophagi and bits of ancient masonry. The walls, just like the frescos above them, looked in dire need of a fresh coat of paint.

A SarcophagusA Sarcophagus

The Baptistry of St. John is an impressive cylindrical, domed structure with a marble facade and a delicately adorned entrance. Save for the bright stained glass windows, its interiors are relatively austere5.

The Baptistry of St. JohnThe Baptistry of St. John

The Baptistry of St. JohnThe Baptistry of St. John

The cathedral, like many hundreds of years old churches in Europe, is still in active service. The intricate, golden ceiling above the entrance glowed in the sunlight streaming in from windows carved into the upper levels of the cathedral.

Cathedral exteriorCathedral exterior

Cathedral interior and roof detailCathedral interior and roof detail

The wife drew my attention to the fact that the traditional tallow votive candles inside this church had been replaced with electric ones6. You’d put a coin into a slot, and a random candle (basically, a light bulb mounted on candle-length white rod) would come on. I failed to check the minimum denomination of the coin the slot would take.

Electronic votive candlesElectronic votive candles

We lunched at a small local pizzeria we had bookmarked on our way to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They were also selling a crisp, savoury pancake of chickpea flour7, sandwiched between two slices of focaccia. We ordered a portion minus the focaccia. It was delicious.

We took another meandering route to the station. We came across a local cathedral,

A small local churchA small local church

a park with a statue of Pietro Leopoldo I

A park with a statue of Pietro Leopoldo IA park with a statue of Pietro Leopoldo I

and these gorgeous buildings at the campus of University of Pisa that looked surreal in the evening light.

University of Pisa campus buildingsUniversity of Pisa campus buildings

We approached river Arno slightly west of where we were in the morning. This was fortuitous because we were able to visit the Santa Maria della Spina - a tiny gothic church with a beautiful marble facade8.

Santa Maria della SpinaSanta Maria della Spina

Santa Maria della SpinaSanta Maria della Spina

Santa Maria della SpinaSanta Maria della Spina

It was a lot windier now than in the morning, the river no longer a placid mirror. Sun was illuminating the buildings on the northern side and creating a breathtaking interplay between light, colours, shadow and contrast.

Light and contrastLight and contrast

Sunlit FacadesSunlit Facades

Sunlit FacadesSunlit Facades

Another short walk through a quaint residential neighbourhood (complete with a merry-go-round) got us back to the Pisa station.

Merry go roundMerry go round

We almost got into the wrong train that would’ve taken over two hours to get us back to Florence. The right one was a few minutes later and, as it turned out, a few minutes late. After the kind of day we had had, we didn’t mind.

  1. Or rather the master of itineraries, the wife.↩︎

  2. One does this by walking in the general direction of the destination but not hesitating to take a detour if a street or building seems inviting.↩︎

  3. For example, its height comes in some 30m short of the campanile next to the cathedral in Florence↩︎

  4. Given the amount of sun they must get in summer, that might be a Sisyphean endeavour.↩︎

  5. While researching for this blog post, I came across this article in the Guardian about the baptistry’s unusual acoustic properties. It was quiet inside during our visit. If the claims in the article are true, they definitely weren’t making a show of it.↩︎

  6. Colour me surprised. Italy has one of the lowest adoption of electric cars in Europe while the church is switching to electric candles. Snark aside, while the switch might have been motivated by a sliver of environmental mindedness, I suspect more practical considerations were the real reason. These electric candles’ don’t leave messy wax to be cleaned by someone, don’t have to be restocked and are a lower fire hazard all around. Win win.↩︎

  7. Known as Cecina↩︎

  8. I am not automobile minded, but given this cathedral’s diminutive proportions, I couldn’t help but think of Fiat’s iconic tiny car from the 50s.↩︎

February 17, 2019