Florentine proverb: "Meglio un morto a casa che un Pisano al'uschio!" ("Better a death in the family than a Pisan at the door!")
Pisan reply: "E che Dio to contenda!" ("And may god grant your wish!")
At midnight on a weekday, when most of Europe is tucked up in bed, Pisa comes alive down by the river.
The students from the famous university sit on the river walls - hundreds of them - chatting, drinking, and flirting till the early hours. It is of course the famous Italian passoggiata, and in this town of ancient academia, its participants are young people who study at one of the most important universities in the world. But then students can stay up to all hours - they can miss lectures in the morning. It's the rest of Pisa that needs its sleep.
And if you come to Tuscany, you must visit Pisa. Apart from its world-famous tower, it is a beautiful city with barely a modern building amongst its twisting medieval streets. Butter-coloured stone crowns the facades of churches, cobbles cover elegant piazzas, arcades hide good shopping, and the town buzzes with the sound of tourists and students. It feels strange to look around at day-trip Pisa and to realise it was once a major power. Pisa was also the final destination for the western end of the Silk Road from China. It was a little battler of a city. It held the strategic islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Mallorca, and, in turn, came to dominate the Mediterranean. But there were two other predatory cities that were growing into aggressive powers, Venice and Genoa, and they became, all three, bitter rivals. In 1284 Pisa was defeated in battle by the Genoese. The town remained wealthy, but it plummeted in power and had to submit to a succession of overlords like Genoa, Milan, and Florence. Pisa still had its moments. In the 16th century, for 15 years, this little city held off the combined might of Florence and France. And this is not counting all of its artistic achievements.
And in its layout, it does resemble Florence but without the crowds. It contains the major airport for Tuscany, Galileo, which has frequent buses into town that stop outside the stazione. In fact, the stazione is the true hub of Pisa. There are direct trains to the airport from the station every half an hour, but the big draw is Florence only 1 hour away. The return fare for Florence from Pisa is €8. Yes, I’ll say that again, 8€! It’s just £6.00 or $8.00, and trains leave every half an hour. Keep an eye on the timetables that are pasted onto the walls of the stazione, as there is quite a difference between the fast trains and those that stop at each station. And another tip is to make sure you activate your ticket in one of the machines dotted around the station. Failure to do this results in a nasty fine.
Outside the stazione is the taxi rank and bus port. From here buses can be taken to Viarreggio, Lucca, and the Torre del Largo. But most tourists, clutching their little guidebooks, cross the road and head north to find The Field of Miracles. The street that stretches from the stazione to the south bank of the Arno is the Corso Italiano, a pedestrianised narrow thoroughfare that houses the best boutiques and cafés in Pisa. In fact, all human life traverses this street: students on their way to lectures, preoccupied academics on bicycles, expensively dressed women, and trendy teenagers wearing the latest label. Italians spend more of their salaries on clothes then any other European country, and it can be seen as they move around town. As we traversed, our Italian friends would periodically stop, ostensibly to look at clothes in the window, but we caught them looking at themselves.
Finally, the Corso Italiano opens out into a piazza bordering the river Arno. Here Pisa becomes epic with the wide green river stretching in either direction. The stone banks look the same as they did in medieval times, with three bridges crossing the wide river. On either bank of the Arno are some truly beautiful buildings, most of them coloured tangerine or the light brown so specific to Tuscany, their terracotta roofs sloping down, shielding shuttered windows and balconies. Romanesque churches loomed above the rooftops, and lambrettas buzzed across the Ponte di Mezzo spanning the Arno. It is when you cross this bridge that Pisa seems to work its magic. Directly across is the Piazza Garibaldi. An arcaded building in streaked green marble overlooks the cobbled piazza that contains a statue of Garibaldi himself. I thoroughly recommend the gelataria in the northwest corner - their pistachio ice cream is delicious.
From there things get confusing. The Field of Miracles is not in a straight line from the stazione; it is situated away to the northwest, as the streets of Pisa do not lead there directly. From the Piazza Garibaldi the Borgo Stretto heads northwards; after travelling along this for 10 minutes you must take a left along Via Ulisse Dini into the beautiful Piazza Cavaolari. From there take the narrow street Via dei Mille further northwest and hopefully connect up with Via Santa Maria and the Leaning Tower. You will be in the same predicament as hundreds of equally confused tourists, so my advice is to follow the herd - they may know where they are going.
The shops are a major attraction - many of them situated in lovely arcades resembling that other stunning Italian University town, Bologna. And there are some truly beautiful set-pieces, i.e. Piazza de Cavaolari, which is one of the administrative centers of the university and is stunning (see photo). The university building is called Scuola Normale Superiore and has a set of stone steps leading up to a marble facade with shuttered windows. And between these windows is incredible ornate tracery, pictures of angels, and emblems with little marble busts perched in niches. The building was Napoleon Bonaparte’s idea. You need to pass special exams to get in and keep a high rating during the course. Another statue stands in the centre of this Piazza, this time with a drinking fountain. There are so many little exquisite piazzas in Pisa (although I must admit there is a lot of graffiti, some of it very political). One of my favorites was Piazza Dante Aligheri down by the river. The noble university building overlooked a tiny green square surrounded by palm trees.
I have a friend, Dr. Nicola Pavese, who works in London but keeps his apartment going in Pisa. And for 4 days in June, we stayed in his apartment outside the city walls on the Via Mossa (or Via Tosser as another friend called it - sorry, English joke), and from there we spread out to explore Tuscany. We were lucky enough to be shown about by his friends, and on the first night, slightly tired from the budget flight, we were taken out in a convertible sports car and spun along the cobbled streets. There we got our first snapshots of Pisa: the light reflected in the dark river, the studentpasseigetta in Piazza Garibaldi, and the famous leaning tower glowing in the darkness.
Once in a while there is a poll in the European Union: "If you were not your own nationality, which other nationality would you be?" Italian always wins; isn’t that funny?