We spent a week in Pisa in December 2007, and I have no idea why I haven't written anything about this part of Italy before. I fell in love with Pisa after a one-night stand of sorts seven years prior to this last visit, during my first ever trip to Italy in 2000. We stayed one night only and arrived after dark, to depart early in the morning for a Corsica ferry from nearby Livorno. And thus my first view of the Pisan Campo dei Miracoli was a night-time one - the white marble of the wondrous buildings floodlit against the silvery-inky sky, the tat merchants and most of the tourists gone, the square itself quiet, eerie and heart achingly beautiful. The Campo certainly lived up to its name then.
Pisa was a significant port in Roman times, and in the Middle Ages it became a significant maritime power in the western Mediterranean. It was one of the four maritime republics (and it's still often referred to as Republica Marinara and very proud of its sea traditions), the other three being Amalfi, Venice and Genoa.
The power and influence of Pisa declined with its defeat at the hands of Genoa in the late 13th century and loss of its coastal and island possessions while silting up of Arno meant it couldn't function as a viable port any more. Pisa became part of the Florentine city-state in the early 15th century and since than has been largely eclipsed by Florence.
This is why the most strikingly unique monuments in Pisa date to the medieval period, and of those the most important are on or near the vast square of Piazza del Duomo, otherwise known after the Anuzio novel as Piazza (or Campo) dei Miracoli.
My favourite building is probably the Baptistery: a round creation of white marble, with rounded Romanesque arches on the lower level pointed Gothic ones higher up.
The Duomo is the largest building in the Piazza, in Pisan Romanesque, with a grey marble facade and Byzantine interior.
The Leaning Tower is certainly attractive and now stable after a lot of work put into straightening it and stabilising.
I also liked the Camposanto - a large Gothic cloister full of of tombs, sculptures and housing a collection of Roman sarcophagi as well as some great - and rather disturbing - frescoes.
But there is more to Pisa than the Campo dei Miracoli.
Piazza dei Cavalieri was constructed in a Renaissance style by Cosimo I de Medici, with the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, Palazzo dell' Orologio and the church of the Cavalieri di Santo Stefano al handsome buildings creating an altogether different space from the medieval Campo dei Miracoli,
The banks of Arno, lined with what seems like an endless sequence of palazzos are very pleasant to stroll by, and on the southern bank (opposite the main part of the old town) there is a little chapel of Santa Maria della Spina, a striking Gothic contrast to the palazzos with its pointed arches, rose windows and latticed turrets.
The main shopping drag is Borgo Stretto, where old palaces now house shops, cafes and a street market takes place.
Pisa has a an university dating back to the 14th century. Its famous alumni include Galileo Galilei, who was supposed to conduct some of his experiments using the Leaning Tower; physicist Enrico Fermi and poet Giosue Carducci. The large student population gives Pisa a youthful feel, but it's not a city dominated by the university: it feels like a place with a good mixture of ages and social groups, confident in itself, not too stuffy and not too crude either. It's fairly flat, and during our stay I saw many a distinguished looking Italian in a well cut suit cycling about its partially pedestrianised centre: I have not seen as many cyclists in any other Italian city.
The university area is perhaps a little bit shabbier, but not very noticeably so and it's here that the cheapest and liveliest bars, cafes and trattorias can be found as well as the Botanic Garden - reputedly the first in the world - with a collection of rare plants from all over the world.