International Travel: Pisa, Italy

What Italy lacks in physical size, the country more than makes up for with the rich and ancient history that permeates the streets of its cities and the people living within them. Ruins of the once great Roman civilization can be found right next to contemporary office buildings and homes. People stop for an afternoon espresso under the shadow of the Colosseum and in Florence, sip on a glass of grappa after an amazing meal, with the Duomo illuminated behind them. The songs of gondoliers echo off the walls of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Remnants of the past are seemingly around every corner.

In 2009 my wife Destiny and I traveled to Italy.  We spent three days in Rome, two in Florence, one day in Pisa and three in Venice. Nine days; a whirlwind trip whose tale begins in Rome followed by Florence and now continues with a train ride to Pisa…

The sun has just risen as we start our day and make our way from our hotel to the Santa Maria Novella Train Station in the middle of Florence. We are on another adventure. The stone streets are almost empty, save for a few other early risers, as the morning light filters in between buildings illuminating the city in a soft glow.

The station is relatively empty as we board the train and find an empty seat. The plan is to make it to Pisa and catch the connecting train north to Cinque Terre, a colorful area of northern Italy that encompasses five villages. According to our trusty Lonely Planet travel guide and some first-hand accounts from friends, Cinque Terre is supposed to be some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the world.  Small homes dot the jagged coastline and harbors are filled with fishing vessels.  Vineyards and houses cling to steep, mountain terraces, lights from the villages reflect off the water at twilight and a seven and a half mile trail connecting them all together. I try to shake the sleep from my brain as Destiny and I decide which side of the villages we want to start our hike along the Sentiero Azzurro.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, wait a minute I thought you said you spent a day in Pisa? How does Cinque Terre fit in to this timeline? As with all things in life, not everything goes exactly as planned. This fact becomes more apparent as our train, still 30 or so minutes outside of Pisa, starts to slow and comes to a stop. We sit on the tracks as the minute slowly tick past. The train starts to move again but not for long as we come to another stop. We finally reach the train station. We run. By the time we reach the ticket counter at Pisa Centrale we have missed the connecting train by four minutes. Four minutes.

To me, the two most important things to take with you on any trip are a sense of adventure and the ability to be very flexible. The missed train could have put a damper on our day if we would have let it. Not getting to see Cinque Terre, although disappointing, was not going to ruin a perfectly good adventure. We were, after all, in Italy.

We enter the city of Pisa. We have followed the Arno River from Florence to Pisa and, like Florence, the wide waterway cuts through the city in which we find ourselves. Bridges span the slow moving currents and reflections of buildings and people stare back from the depths of the river. The sun is shining as we walk the streets of Pisa. Workers are busy putting up Christmas trees and lights. Locals ride by us on bicycles, the sounds of their tires whizzing bumpily by on the cobblestone beneath them. Others carry packages in their hands and backpacks on their shoulders. It is a bustling city. We stop at a fruit stand and with broken Italian and English buy a single orange.  As we continue to walk the streets, we peel the orange, like the ones we saw on the trees as the train sped past the orchards, and bite into the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted. Life is good.

The orange only strengthens our appetites so our noses lead us to a small restaurant. The smell of pizza cooking in a wood fire brick oven wafts out of the open doorway. The small space is crowded. Tables are filled with people and food as more stand at the counter. We wait our turn. The cheese is hot and bubbling, fresh from the oven, as we walk outside and enjoy our slices. It is heavenly. We have had pizza before on this trip but nothing compares to this moment.

We pass homes and buildings, down the quintessential narrow streets that seem to be the calling card of all Italian cities. We navigate our way through the twisting maze of archways, courtyards and plazas as we make our way further into Pisa and finally catch a glimpse of what we’ve been looking for, the most famous landmark in the city, The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The tower stands before us, reaching 183 feet into the air, as we walk into the Piazza dei Miracoli. The Plaza of Miracles, or more frequently called Piazza del Duomo, not only holds the famous bell tower but also the large Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta, the baptistry and the monumental cemetery. They are all impressive but the crowd moving through the piazza all have their eyes on the tower.

The white marble shines in the sun. The almost four degree tilt causes a two foot difference between the high side of the structure and the low side. I see glimpses of people inside the tower as they climb almost 300 steps to the pinnacle of the building. We walk around the tower taking photographs and admire the ancient ingenuity that was needed to keep the whole thing from tumbling over. A few sections seem to be wrapped in plastic as restoration continues to help repair the corrosion and blackening of the stone. It is over 600 years old after all.

The cooing of hundreds of pigeons adds to the hum of noise from the throngs of people enjoying their afternoon. We bump into a couple from California we met on the train earlier in the morning and take pictures of one another holding up the leaning tower. We say farewell to Rick and Peipei as we continue on our exploration. The inside of the Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta is filled with marble, granite and gold leaf. Paintings and frescoes depict the assumption of the Virgin Mary and other holy scenes. Like the other churches we have seen on our trip, this cathedral is a work of art in itself.

The sun is starting to set as we head in the direction of the train station. We cross the Arno River as the orange ball of fire hangs low in the sky and watch as a team of rowers swiftly navigate the waters that seem to glow on fire. We board the train back to Florence and rest our weary feet for the hour journey. The late afternoon turns into evening as we pull into the city. Our internal compasses, now trained, lead us to our hotel without much thought. We have one last stop to make. We promised that we would return to the first restaurant we ate at on our first day in the city. Even though exhausted we pushed through as only you can while traveling.

The proprietor couple instantly recognizes us as we walked through the doors to their establishment. We order and are treated to an amazing array of flavors. Fresh eggplant caprese, ravioli stuffed with fresh cheese, Gorgonzola gnocchi with salami are all on the menu. We split a bottle of wine and chat about the adventures of our day, the disappointment of Cinque Terre completely forgotten. In true Italian fashion, before we leave we get into a conversation with our hosts about the difference between Sambuca and grappa. The husband pours a snifter of both for us to try and tells us that side by side there is no comparison and grappa is better by far. I try to pay and he refuses. It is a sweet farewell to our time in Italy which is drawing to a close. We have three days left and tomorrow morning we will be heading for the watery streets of Venice…

If you would like to find out more on things to do not only in Pisa, but the rest of Italy, you can visit Jen Reviews for a list of 100 ideas.