After two memorable days in Cinque Terre it was time to begin a travel segment to Cortina d’Ampezzo, the beginning of my Dolomite Mountains trek. When researching this travel I discovered that there were a two main alternatives: 1) two trains, two flights, and two buses or 2) four trains and one bus. It was not going to be easy! – and I was not going to be able to do all of the travel in one day.
I decided to spread the travel over two days and do some sightseeing along the way. Also, I figured that I might as well see Tuscany from the ground rather than from an airplane, so I went with the second alternative. The train routing was via Pisa and Florence to Venice and onward by bus to Cortina. I had not visited Pisa before, and the lure of the famous leaning tower was very strong.
This post describes part of the first day: travel to Pisa and sightseeing in Pisa.
From Riomaggiore I took a moderately early train, about 8:30 am, to La Spezia and then an intercity train to Pisa. I wanted to allow a half hour to get my luggage down the many steps to Via Colombo and then to the Riomaggiore train station – and down and up the steps to the subway to cross over to the far side of the tracks. Although I didn’t count the steps, I sure remember that there were a lot of them! With train connection time and allowing time to purchase my ticket in La Spezia, the actual train travel took about 2 hours.
Pisa is basically down the coast of the Ligurian Sea from Genoa and Cinque Terre. South of La Spezia the range of coastal mountains is called the Apuan Alps (Alpi Apuane). I took a few pictures from the train, thinking that this smaller mountain range was an enticing preview of the Dolomites, where I would be on the following afternoon.
In Pisa the plan was to leave my luggage at the baggage-check desk at the Pisa Centrale train station and walk to the Field of Miracles (Piazza dei Miracoli), where the Leaning Tower and other major sights are located. Per information in the Rick Steves book regarding pickpockets in Pisa, I had decided to walk to the tower rather than take a bus, and to minimize the obvious electronic gadgets I was carrying. So I kept my camera well-hidden and did not use my GPS at all. My mileages are estimates based on remembering my route. This image shows the tourist map I got at the train station, with purple and yellow suggested walking routes.
The train station is at the southern edge of the map, which denotes the roughly 1-mile square historic center of Pisa, still partly surrounded by 12th century walls. I ended up following an abbreviated combination of the purple and yellow routes. From the train station I headed north toward the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and onward along Corso Italia, part of the pedestrian zone, toward the river. Although there were plenty of people walking here, presumably many of them tourists like me, I expected to see more crowds once I arrived at the Field of Miracles.
About one block before the river on Corso Italia, the purple route goes to the right, along Via San Martino, to pass by Fortezza di San Gallo and Scotto Gardens. I decided to omit part of the loop over to the Fortezza. After noticing a sign for Pizzeria Galileo, near a riverfront street named for Galileo Galilei, I walked over to the riverfront and then across the Ponte della Fortezza, the bridge on the purple route that crosses the River Arno. The bridge in this picture is Ponte di Mezzo, the bridge on the yellow route that I would take on my return trip.
After crossing the River Arno I made my way north-northwest until I nearly reached the old city walls. On the way I walked along Via Santa Cecilia, passing the Piazza Martiri della Liberta, a pretty, open park. As I followed the street around a curve to the left, I found myself in front of what appeared to be an ancient ruin. It turned out to be called Terme di Nerone, or thermal baths of Nero, apparently dating from Roman times. The wall in the background at the right is part of the so-called old city walls.
As is so often the case for cities with a long history, historical buildings and artifacts are surrounded by the modern city. In this case, one of the streets that passes right by the Terme also passes through Porta a Lucca, one of the gates in the city wall. In both of these pictures note that there appear to be railings on top of the wall. I have read that there are plans to open at least a portion of the walls to visitors, but these plans seem to be uncertain, and I didn’t see anyone walking on the walls. When they do open, a visit will provide an interesting, different perspective on the Old City and its buildings.
After rounding the curve in the street it was just a short walk along Via Cardinale Pietro Maffi to the Field of Miracles and the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa (Torre Pendente). Obviously, the amount and direction of lean visible depends on the direction from which you view the tower. On such a bright and sunny day the white marble made a striking contrast with the sky.
The connection between Galileo and the tower is rather interesting from a scientific point of view. According to legend, he dropped balls of different weights and densities from the top of the tower to see which reached the ground first. He combined experimental data, also involving rolling balls down ramps, to understand air resistance. The systematic testing he did shattered traditional beliefs based primarily on reasoning alone and dating back to the time of Aristotle and, at the same time, paved the way for Isaac Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity in the following century. This was likely an important step in changing physics from a field of philosophy to a science.
A popular thing for tourists to do is to pose in front of the tower appearing to brace it from toppling over. I saw many people, like this man, doing exactly that. I didn’t manage to get a picture with the correct viewing angle to replicate such a photo, but I thought that the people posing were interesting by themselves.
While researching my brief stopover in Pisa I had determined that I would not attempt to climb the tower. Usually when there is a tower or mountain peak nearby I like to climb to the top to see the views. In this case, however, my understanding was that you could not purchase tickets on-line, only at one of two on-site ticket offices, and the typical wait for a capacity-limited time slot was a couple of hours, or even longer on a busy day. Instead I decided to investigate getting a ticket to enter the cathedral (Duomo), and the wait was less than an hour, which left enough time to walk around and get a quick lunch.
The designation Field of Miracles (Campo or Piazza dei Miracoli) apparently dates only from 1910 or so, in a novel written by Gabriele d’Annunzio. The square contains four significant religious buildings: the cathedral (Duomo), its bell tower (the Leaning Tower), the baptistery (Battistero), and a cemetery (Camposanto Monumentale). In 1987 the Field of Miracles was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Baptistery is the largest in Italy, in fact nearly as tall as the bell tower. In retrospect I’m a bit sorry that I did not take the time to visit the interior. Apparently the acoustics are such that sounds echo for several seconds, so it is possible to sing an entire chord with yourself if you are standing at the baptismal font. While this may or may not be possible for a member of the public to do (I guess not), a security guard sings every half hour during opening hours.
The cathedral (Duomo) is the largest building at the Field of Miracles, and it is indeed quite impressive. Although the bell tower and baptistery are close by, there is still enough open space to get a sense of the grandeur of the cathedral. I would see later the same day that the Duomo in Florence is more closely surrounded by the city.
Interior visits are according to time slots and may be capacity-limited. The picture shows part of the crowd of visitors waiting for their time slot and trying to stay in the shade. The temperature was 28-30 degrees C (82-85 degrees F) but, with the bright sun and brilliant white marble, it felt much hotter, so shady spots were at a premium.
The Duomo was built starting in 1063 and is in the Romanesque style. After a disastrous fire in 1595 much of the interior art had to be replaced. This view of the interior shows the 320-foot long nave with black-and-white striped marble touches, an octagonal pulpit (Giovanni’s Pulpit), a large mosaic at the apse (behind the altar at the far end), and a small glimpse of the fresco on the interior surface of the dome. I assume there were some particulates in the air, since shafts of sunlight were readily visible. Although nearly invisible in the picture, near the pulpit there is a lamp suspended from the ceiling. It is a late 16th century replacement, called Galileo’s lamp, of a lamp whose swings during Mass prompted the then-teenage Galileo to begin formulating his theory of pendulum motion.
There is a great deal of beautiful art, bronze doors, stained glass windows, and marble floors, as well as numerous revered and famous individuals entombed within the cathedral. The gilded coffered ceiling is also very impressive. It was replaced after the 1595 fire and contains the coat of arms of the Medici family.
As I walked around inside the Duomo, where the temperature was more comfortable than outdoors, I decided that, when I was finished with my informal tour, I would return more-or-less directly to the train station and continue my day’s journey to Florence. After exiting the Duomo I started to follow the yellow route along Via Santa Maria, another pedestrian zone. Besides several outdoor cafes, there were horse-drawn carriages available for hire.
I crossed the River Arno on the Ponte di Mezzo, arrived at the Pisa Centrale train station, retrieved my luggage, bought a ticket for the next train to Florence, and was shortly on my way to the next stage of sightseeing en route to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Although my stop in Pisa was short, it had been very enjoyable.