During these socially distanced times, welcoming thousands of visitors each day to a series of major tourist attractions is a balancing act. And in Pisa it seems to have been achieved rather well. Yes, there are queues for the tower, and you may have to book a specific time slot to visit some of the other historic locations nearby. But all in all, there are smaller than usual crowds for the end of September, which is a relief in temperatures of 30 celsius.
As you approach the tower itself, the streets are dotted with hawkers, selling tourist tat and accessories like umbrellas and ponchos. It’s the same the world over, but sunglasses help in this situation – as you can avoid any form of eye contact. In any case, your eyes are quickly drawn to the main event.
The tower took nearly 200 years to build, and its famous 4 degree lean was caused either by enthusiastic nuns who preferred viewing from the east side, or the soft ground it was set in – depending on which theory you prefer to believe.
Inside the ticket office, a relatively simply pricing structure (2020 prices). It’s €9 to go up the tower, and a further €18 for three surrounding museums. Both tickets get you entry to the Cathedral, which seems a good way of regulating the numbers.
In the pristine grounds, the voices are mostly European – German, English, French and Italian. During the Pandemic, lucrative trade from the United States and Far East has all but disappeared – and while that may be bad for the economy, the smaller numbers make for a better visitor experience.
The Cathedral was built at around the same time as St Mark’s in Venice, and history suggests a rivalry between the two to see who could come up with the best and most elaborate design. Along with the adjacent baptistry and Campo Santo (monumental cemetery), the trio of buildings is well worth exploring for a couple of hours.
While there is much beauty, the elaborate Campo Santo is the place to be buried around here – and it can start to see a little sinister. Grand marble stones flag the floors around the open cloisters, while more important figures get to have their bones displayed inside gold cases. Talk about showing off.
The immediate streets to the south of the Tower are lined with restaurants of the worst kind. There may not be anything wrong with the cooking, but places that come complete with pictures of their dishes on massive menus rarely offer a memorable dining experience, bit least when they’re being sold by push staff.
It’s much better to head back towards the River Arno, and divert down any one of the side streets, to find small family run cafes, like those dotted along Via Demonica Cavalca, where you can get a decent sandwich and a beer for around €6. And there are hundreds of similar outlets across the city – snacking is an Italian way of life, using simple ingredients. It’s the perfect way of breaking up a busy day of sightsseing.