From Paris to Pisa and Yes, my Dear, the Tower Really Leans…But Not as Much as Before!
Recently it seems I’ve spent more time OUT of Paris than IN Paris with multiple trips to the airports to a variety of destinations such as New York/New Orleans, Nice and now Pisa (or “Pise” as it is called in French). Once upon a time the only town on my mind was Paris, to spend every waking moment in the City of Light. But now that it’s been home for almost 20 years, it’s more “de rigeur” and a great place from which to travel to the rest of the world. Pisa is one of them, just a 1.5 hour Easyjet away for under 100€.
Yes, my dear, the tower really leans.
I can remember the first time I landed in Pisa in 1979. Seeing it for the first time, my first thought was “Lord, it does really lean — and lean a lot!” The same thing happened when I traveled to Ireland and realized that yes, there really are 40 shades of green! One of those revelations that grounds you into reality.
It’s a beautiful sight in all its leaning glory. No wonder thousands upon thousands of tourists pull up in large coaches, descend, walk around the beautiful green grassy grounds, take the usual photos to look as if they’re holding up the tower themselves, return to their coaches and leave, never seeing the city itself. It’s a shame for the tourists that they don’t get to know the beautiful Italian city better, but as my friend Geraldine (blogger of the “Travel Oyster“) notes, Pisans don’t really want them invading.
My friends in Pisa who have come here every March and April for the last 10 years (for an academic teaching contract), change abodes occasionally, experiencing some new side of the university city. This year’s rental apartment is owned by a friend of theirs who lives in the same building, up 92 stone steps in a newly renovated attic floor of an ancient palazzo. It’s a large open space with exposed beams and a dozen big square windows that provide views of Pisan red tile rooftops that seem to go on endlessly.
The Synagogue “Comunita Ebraica di Pisa” is just next door and an iconic Mogen David carved into the side peers into one of the living room windows. Built in 1595, but remodeled in 1785 and again in 1863, it contains a “mikvah” dating back to 1660. Originally the building belonged to the Serravallino family and was purchased by the Jewish community in 1647. It is thought that Pisa was the first city in Tuscany where the Jews settled as in 850, a contract was given registering a Jewish home-owner. By 1165, 20 families were living in Pisa.
Jeffrey calls Pisa a “Medieval Ann Arbor,” as it’s a college town with about 40% of it’s population being students and academicians. (Ladies, this means there are lots of good looking young Italian men that are feasts for the eyes!) The university system is a network of three schools: Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the University of Pisa. Along with the students comes a young vibe and a lot of nightlife.
Our first evening dinner was in a tiny restaurant called Trattoria Sant’Omobono, on the Piazza San Omobono at number 6, built around a column surviving from a medieval church that once stood there. It’s one of those perfect little trattorias where none of the tower tourists is to be found, with a very inexpensive menu (three of us dined for 50€ with a bottle of wine) and the food was beautifully prepared, but simple and delicious. One speciality is not to be missed — the “brachette alla renaiaola” — an ancient Pisan dish consisting of large pasta squares in a purée of turnip greens and smoked fish.
The Corso Italia is in the heart of the city center, leading from the central train station, much of which was rebuilt after the bombings of 1944 when 50% of the buildings were destroyed. No matter — shopping for goodies in Italy is still like ogling the “pastisseries” in France…everything is eye candy. In one small lingerie shop, wrapped beautifully in a gauze bag, was something neither Geraldine nor I had ever seen before. The sales person removed it from the bag and very proudly showed us how to wear what she called “Zee String” — placing it between her legs without reservation to show us just how to place it! “Zee String?” we both questioned.
It turns out that the gadget is like a G-string, except that there is no supporting “string” around the wearer’s hips or panty line, leaving just a sideways C shaped piece between the legs. “This is held in place firmly by a flexible internal frame. Since there is no material around the waist, the C-string completely eliminates the panty lines which thongs and other underwear create.” (Wikipedia.org) “Only in Italy,” I proclaimed! (Only later to discover, I’m just too old and out of fashion.)
It turns out I landed in Pisa at a particularly special moment — the city’s New Year! Unlike the rest of the world, the Pisan new year begins at 12 a.m. on March 25th, supposedly when “a ray of sunlight filtering through the window of the Cathedral of Pisa, is going to hit the egg of marble placed above the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.” Therefore Pisans can celebrate the new year nine months ahead of the rest of us, officially done until 1749, “when it was aligned with the Gregorian calendar for the Grand Ducal decree.”
As a result, we witnessed some of the festivities with knights on horseback in procession (backdropped by the cars and buses — a funny sight), a ceremony involving a parachuter who, if the winds had been right, would have landed on a tiny mat on the “Ponte di Mezzo” (bridge) and fireworks from the River Arno on Saturday night.
This is also the 950th year since the first stone of the city’s Cathedral was laid and the 450th anniversary of the birth of Galileo Galilei, one of Pisa’s most illustrious citizens. There are special exhibitions in honor of these events, one of which is at the Palazzo Blu, curated and promoted by the Pisa University, National Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Scuola Normale Superiore called “Balle di Scienza” (Blunders of Science). We landed there succinctly on opening day (on till June 29th) while crowds were waiting for the parachuter who never jumped! The point of the exhibition is that “Science is made up of mistakes which are useful to make, because, little by little, the errors bring us to the truth.” (Richard Feynman) It was outstanding evidenced by the fun everyone was having with the interactive and informative displays.
Sunday as part of Italy’s version of Les Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, known as “Fondo Ambiente Italiano,” we visited the “Arsenali Repubblicani” in an archaeological site called The Citadel, or “La Cittadella di Pisa,” currently under restoration. Climbing to the top of the 12th-century Guelph Tower afforded beautiful views of the city and of the Leaning Tower. After much discussion questioning which tower was taller, we gave up after three of us searched the Internet for the answer and came up with nothing except the height of the Leaning Tower — 55.86 meters (183.27 feet) from the ground on the low side and 56.67 meters (185.93 feet) on the high side and that there are 296 steps to the top. Since we didn’t count while climbing up to the top of the Guelph Tower, we’re at a loss for comparison.
By the way, just in case you didn’t know, the tower once leaned 5.5 degrees, but now only leans 3.99 degrees thanks to restoration work done between 1990 and 2001.
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
P.S. You’re invited to the gala opening of an exhibition of four talented artists (a sculptor, two painters, and Meredith Mullins!). Save the date, Monday, March 31 from 6-9 pm. We hope that the vernissage will be a fun gathering of friends (and collectors!). See you at the Etienne de Causans Gallery at 25 rue de Seine.
P.P.S. It’s tomorrow! Don’t miss HGTV’s House Hunters International episode “Searching for Style and Space in Paris” on March 25 at 12:30 p.m. E/P. Fashion stylist Illysia and her husband Alec embark on a quest for the perfect Paris pied-à-terre, but is it possible to find an apartment that will suit a family of four, yet appeal to potential renters — and suit Illysia’s strong sense of style? Tune in and find out!