Pisa’s greatest attraction is also its greatest misfortune. The leaning tower attracts busloads of tourists, many from Mediterranean cruises landing at Livorno (who instead of seeing that city as a highly interesting example of a Medicean port dating back to the sixteenth century, avoid it) who are whisked to the piazza dei Miracoli to take the statutory shot of the illusion of holding up the tower and then (if lucky) move on to Florence or else equally quickly to be whisked back to their cruise liner.
The fact is that, although the famous piazza is without doubt one of the world’s great sights, there are many smaller miracoli to be seen in Pisa, not least of which is the lively street scene and the greater openness of its people when compared with the more enclosed Luccan character.
Yesterday we had occasion to go to Pisa to meet relatives at the airport and decided to make a day of it. First stop was the Royal Palace, a national museum which again is exceedingly neglected in favour of the better known Museo san Matteo.
Dating back to 1583 when Tuscan grand duke Francis I decided to build a lovely new palace overlooking the Arno it was designed by Buontalenti who also had a big hand in designing the Pitti palace gardens in Florence.
For the two hours we were there admiring its rooms, fine arms collection, paintings (including a Bronzino, a Breughel and even a Raphael), fabulous tapestries from the Geubels factory in Brussels, furniture, exquisite dresses dating back to renaissance times, intimate miniatures and sculpture we actually had the place to ourselves and were left quite alone to enjoy its wonders.
I was particularly impressed by a collection of Japanese ceramics which I am sure fellow blogger at http://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/ will have something to say about.
There were also some fine modern paintings:
We had a great meal at a restaurant recommended to us by a young member of the museum staff: Stelio’s in nearby piazza Dante where we ate beautifully and simply cooked food complete with wine, cover and the addition of a local troubadour for around ten euros a head.
Stelio’s has been here for fifty years and is a veritable Pisan institution. Stelio himself is now eighty and his two sons show every wish to carry on with the business. The restaurant was filled with every conceivable type of client. Apart from us brits, there were students, workers, retired, office workers, and university profs (the university is what gives Pisa its zesty life). Eating there seemed like something out of Bohemian life as it genuinely was.
After the meal the sun came out and our intention to visit the museum of calculating machines didn’t quite work out as we were waylaid by the lovely botanical gardens which, happily, were not badly damaged by the recent great storm.
Pisa’s botanical gardens were created by Cosimo I de’ Medici and developed by the great botanist, Luca Ghini. Founded in 1543 they are the oldest botanical gardens in the world and the first to be connected to a university.
The magical gardens revealed some wonderful plants including a 200-year old magnolia, that living fossil of a tree the Gingko Biloba
and much else, including a huge yew tree (or tree of death as they call it here in Italy where it is very rare) an astonishing Australian araucaria, native of Queensland with a huge trunk and very prickly leaves,
a lovely pond and much, much else.
The view of Pisa’s leaning tower from “i giardini botannici” was transcendental, growing out of the gardens like the most exotic plant and, again, we had the whole place to ourselves!
Then it was time to head to the airport to collect our guests. We were so glad we made a day of it in Pisa instead doing the usual shuttle service tour to the airport from home and back. We would have otherwise missed so much of this truly life-enhancing city.