Monday, May 07, 2007


The best thing that ever happened to Pisa was the hiring, in 1173, of a bunch of incompetents to build the cathedral bell tower. Apart from taking 200 years to complete - more Italian get up and go - the tower was tilting significantly well before its completion. It occurs to one however, that without this peccadillo, Pisa would be just another walled cathedral city sitting on the scruffy plain that makes up this part of Tuscany. With it, there is a huge tourist draw turning this otherwise tired old town into a mecca for Nigerian sunglass vendors, Indian wristwatch vendors, buggy ride vendors and a huge congregation of ice cream, candy cotton and cheesy souvenir stands. Maybe places like, say, Duluth, Minnesota should think about tilting one or two of their buildings to see if the punters would come running.
At the north end of town the three show pieces, Pisa Cathedral, the attendant Baptistery and the infamous
leaning tower, are set off with well kept lawns and a general aura of opulent wellbeing.

Pisa Cathedral with Baptistery and Clock Tower

Cathedral Facade

The Baptistery

One of the vendor groups by the Cathedral

However, walk a couple of blocks south from this showplace, and you are back in an unkempt and somewhat shabby working city struggling to contend with narrow streets, an overburdened sewer system (judging by occasional fragrances) and, of course, the usual dearth of parking space. A mile south, still within the city walls, the river Arne flows across the town. It is characteristically marred by fast food flotsam washed up on the towpaths set off with a generous ration of weeds.
The Santa Maria della Spina church, originally built in 1230, sits on the south bank of the river and allegedly contained a thorn from Christ on the Cross at some time. In common with many other "old buildings", as we were learning, the church was dismantled and rebuilt on a new site in 1871 to escape further periodic water damage from the river and has subsequently been refurbished again and altered further from its original design. Today, it seems to belong to no one, out of the tourist mainstream, locked up to confuse thieves and vandals, a curse to traffic flow and with absolutely no parking, it truly seems out of time and out of place.
There are several other handsome churches and non-sectarian buildings within the city walls that are worthy of a visit but the brand identity of
the tower is so strong that these seem to be ignored by many groups.

Part of the wall in the manicured part of town

A produce market in a square hidden away from the "Coney Island" crowd

As expected, any European city worth visiting, sports
some obligatory narrow streets

For a change of pace, here is a covered sidewalk

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