Sunday June 23rd, 2024
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The Italy Diaries: Pisa

This week, Nadia El-Awady tells her tale of how actually seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the flesh changed her skeptical view of what she thought was just a cheesy tourist destination.

Staff Writer

The Italy Diaries: Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was never on my bucket list of places I needed to visit before I died. In my mind it was one of those places I had seen in thousands of pictures and on hundreds of television programs. I felt I had already seen it and that it wasn’t that much of a big deal. It was also one of those places that was a typical tourist destination and I’ve been trying to avoid those lately.

My husband and I were recently invited to attend a friend’s wedding in the lovely Santa Margherita on the northwestern coast of Italy. We decided to make a trip of it and see other places in that general region. Pisa was so close by we decided we might as well add it to our itinerary. It was so low on our list of importance, though, that we gave it a maximum of three hours. We planned to arrive by train, run in, see the tower, and run out to our next destination.

The day we took the train to Pisa from Florence was a very rainy day. Colin and I were carrying huge backpacks. We had planned a two-day hike through the Cinque Terre so everything we needed for our seven-day holiday, including hiking and wedding gear, was on our backs.

We hopped off the train as well as anyone can with some 15 kg on their back and headed out of the station. It was pouring. A map stood in the middle of the square just in front of Pisa’s train station. Colin and I, together with several other tourists, scoured it to find the Leaning Tower. It was nowhere to be seen until someone noticed that it was actually scratched from the map. We headed off in the direction of the scratch.

We crossed a bridge and barely five minutes from leaving the train station we were walking through Pisa’s old town. It was stunning in the way that most old towns are. I could not help but stop in the middle of the pouring rain and take pictures.

Entering Pisa’s old town. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

We pushed forward, my jeans heavy with rainwater. We first passed the brand name stores one now finds in any city in the world. As the street narrowed, we passed by local gelateriasand pizza places. And as the street turned, I picked up my head, lowered against the rain and wind, to see something I had not expected at all. Against the dark grey sky, a beautiful white cathedral loomed some 200 meters ahead of us and just in front of it and to its left was the top of a marble tower that looked like it was about to topple right over.

It was surreal. I stopped in the middle of the road, no longer caring how wet I was. It was smaller than I had imagined, more leaning than I had imagined, more beautiful than I had imagined, and with much more of a backdrop than I had imagined.

It just suddenly appears when you turn the corner. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady
The Leaning Tower of Pisa was meant to be built as the bell tower of the adjacent Duomo(cathedral). Standing 55 meters tall (it has an additional foundation of just over three meters below ground), it was built over a period of 199 years starting in 1173. Its original builder is unknown. Evidently, he did not want his name attached to this construction project gone terribly wrong. Construction of the tower halted ten years afterit began when its first three tiers started leaning. It took 100 years to pass before a new constructor attempted to fix the lean, something he obviously failed to achieve. Nevertheless, he managed to add another four tiers to the tower. In 1372 the bell chamber was added at the top of the tower. Intermittently and until 1990 several attempts were made to rectify the lean. The last changes made, finished in 1990,are planned to keep it safe for tourists for another 300 years.
There is so much to see in the area of the Leaning Tower. The Duomo is a very impressive structure outside and in. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is made of limestone and lime mortar covered by marble. It is amazing to see so much marble in one place. I was thrilled to discover that I could walk up to the tower and touch its hard smooth surface.
The Leaning Tower on the outside. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady
After a short wait in the ticket line (there are definite advantages to visiting popular tourist attractions in the pouring rain) we walked into the tower. I was surprised to see that it was hollow on the inside. We were standing in the middle of a huge cylinder, the floor of which had a definite and eerie tilt. We walked up the 294 steps to the top to get a view of Pisa and the surrounding mountains from above. The most impressive aspect of this view was the 11thCentury cathedral standing proud at its side. At the center on the very top of the tower stand four copper bells, each 90 degrees from the next along the top’s circumference.
On the inside, the tower is a hollow cylinder. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

The tour into the tower lasts 30 minutes. You are then instructed to leave for the next group to take your place.

Now, before I write on, I need to make this very clear. I DESPISE people who stand in front of monuments or popular tourist attractions and take silly pictures that make them look like they are somehow touching it or that they are supporting it or that they are cupping it… I see this all the time at the Pyramids: people making complete fools of themselves by standing some three kilometres away and getting their picture taken to look as if they have their hand on the top of one of them.

Colin and I have a total of 29 pictures of us trying to make it look like we’re either tipping the tower down with a single finger or trying to push it up with both hands.

I made Colin do it over and over until he got it right. After his first few failed attempts of taking my picture in these ridiculous positions, I made him stand in the ridiculous positions himself so I could take his picture and find the perfect angle for him to then take mine. Hardly any of the pictures I took of him were good because he kept cupping his hands despite my instructions to him to hold them FLAT against the imaginary tower. I made him take pictures of me over and over and over and over until I got a few I approved of. I ignored the fact that he was rolling his eyes at me throughout the photo shoot and showing signs of utmost restraint. I was going to have a picture of me pretending to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa so I could put it on Facebook!

Me looking at Colin and asking, “Is this right?” Eventually I did get a good one. But I put that one on Facebook. Photo credit: Colin McFadden

Pisa was a pleasant surprise. It is definitely worth a visit. The visit can be done in a short period of time. You don’t really need more than half a day there if your main goal is to the see the tower and its surroundings. Just make sure you get a ridiculous picture of yourself pushing the tower back up. It’s almost impossible not to do!

Next week read about our hike through the scenic Cinque Terre.