You Want a Pisa Me?

(Our final destination and current venue is the city of La Spezia, adjacent to Cinque Terre. Alas, the wifi in our otherwise beautiful villa is not working, so I am typing this offline and will broadcast when I can. But I may not have the opportunity to transfer my photos, so these posts may be like the good old days of email, text-only journaling. My apologies for being insufficiently multimedia for these final posts.)

We left Lucca yesterday morning, enjoying the sight of a massive running and bicycle race that seems to occupy the entire city outside the central walls. Happily traffic management for the event was good and we did not get tangled up in what could have been a traffic nightmare, and we got our of town with difficulty. Our first stop was Lucca’s better known cousin Pisa, home of the universally familiar Leaning Tower. We parked our car in the surprisingly empty parking lot adjacent to the grand square that is home to the tower, and were immediately accosted by one of the countless African vendors offering tchotchkes at every tourist venues. 

These vendors, by the way, have terrible lives, basically imported like cattle from various African countries; they are crammed in large numbers into small flats and pretty much sent out onto the streets with the day’s inventory of selfie sticks, crappy wooden sculptures, and whatever else is selling this season. We can only assume that this is somehow a better life than what they had back home. In any case, this particular vendor kindly informed us that the lot was free on Sunday, and further offered to watch our car if we would buy a six-pack of Kleenex from him for 2 euros. Seemed like a good deal, so we did.

Pretty much every likely tourist destination in Pisa is contained in the one square that includes a museum, the iconic tower, the cathedral (Duomo), and the associated baptistry — a squat cylinder with an large enormously ornate dome, whose interior is famous for its acoustics.  The Duomo is beautiful, though as you are herded through it, assembly-line style with the rest of the crowd, your opportunity to enjoy it is limited. It is enormous, dominated by endlessly high walls culminating in a glorious reticulated gold ceiling that really looks like it might be a bit of architecture imported from Heaven.

But the big draw, of course, is the tower. And of course it is some kind of universal cultural trope that onsey must be photographed by one’s friends at an angle that makes it look like you are holding up the tower with your hands. We didn’t participate in that particular ritual, but it’s pretty hysterical to watch the enormous number of people who do (and there are a lot of tourists hanging around that square). I entertained myself photographing other people doing this; when viewed from the side, a crowd of tourists engaging in is particular ritual looks like some weird Tai Chi class, everyone standing with knees bent, arms out to the side, palms facing outward. I’ll post some pictures of this if the opportunity arises, but for now you can use your imagination.

The tower leans by about 5 degrees, which is a lot. Construction was started in the mid-12th century and was halted after the first three tiers were built because someone spoke up and said, “Hey, isn’t this thing supposed to be pointing straight up?” Turns out the underlying soil is too sandy and compressible. The structure then sat idle for the better part of a century before construction resumed, this time under the auspices of an architect who rather ambitiously figured that he could correct the error by making the columns longer on the downward side of the tilt and thus angle the upper tiers upward again. The result is that the tower is shaped oddly like a banana.

Now the problem, of course, is that since the center of gravity is offset from the center of the base, the Leaning Banana is not at all stable, and the tilt has increased over the heads. Things reached a crisis point about 25 years ago when the total amount of the tilt reached 4.6 meters (about 15 ft), which is perilously close to the point at which the whole thing would topple over. Which would be a great and irreplaceable cultural tragedy, but man, think what incredible security camera footage that would have made.

Anyway, the situation was sufficiently dire that the tower was closed to tourists and an immense, complicated, and expensive engineering effort undertaken to stabilize the underpinnings and remediate some of the tilt. It thus came to pass that a complex arrangement of excavations and counterweights and such was installed, and the tilt successfully reduced to 4 meters (13 ft) and the tower reopened to tourists. (And by the way, now that I think of it, it is apocryphal that Galileo dropped two balls of differing weights off the top to demonstrate the mass-independence of gravity. Though he did do a lot of his other experiments around here.)

It would be cool to climb the tower of course, but two things prevented us: (1) Admission is strictly timed, and our first window of availability was 2 1/2 hours hence, longer than we were willing to wait; and (2) neither our knees nor our our lungs were enthusiastic about ascending a 293-step stone spiral staircase. So we contented ourselves with gawking — it is a wonderfully worthwhile sight, after all — and moved on.

By the time we left, the square had gotten very noticeably more crowded and it is not hard to imagine the place being a total tourist madhouse come summertime; if you are going to visit, this is definitely the right time of year. We returned to the car, the formerly empty parking lot now completely full, tipped our Kleenex vendor another euro (he was indeed right by our car) and headed on our way.

La Spezia sits at the northern crest of the arch-shaped Bay of Poets, so named because Lord Byron supposedly swam across its two-mile width. At the eastern foot of the bay is the seaside resort of Lerici, overseen by an imposing, ominous fortress on a hillside. Mirroring Lerici on the western foot of the bay its sister village of Porto Venere, dominated by its imposing ominous fortress on a hillside. There is a ferry connecting the two.

We spent a couple of hours in Lerici, strolling on the promenade overlooking the beach, along rows of bright pastel houses and stores nestled picturesquely into the cliff wall facing the sea, and through a multitude of vendor stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, food, and beach stuff. The water is green, clear, and cold. There were some lifeguards on a training exercise and a few folks sunbathing on the beach, but no one in the water. (As I said, I’ll post photos when I can, but for now you can use your imagination. It was gorgeous.)

We checked into to our flat in La Spezia at about 4:30, a beautiful apartment with 10′ ceilings occupying a floor of a villa overlooking the city, and surrounded by an elaborate garden. It sits on a very steep, very narrow road that is the source of our principal problem: parking. (I have had my first car problem, scraping the front right fender against a fence while trying to park close enough to the right  allow another car to pass. I’m glad I bought the full insurance.)

Today we are heading to Cinque Terre for some heavy duty scenic views, possibly the last and best of the trip. I’ll be taking a lot of photos which, eventually, you will even get to see…

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Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “You Want a Pisa Me?

  1. Pingback: Pisa and Cinque Terre: Some Photos | Rich and Alice Go Globetrotting

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