Pisa’s perfect piazzas

It’s our final day in Pisa, and although we’ve seen it from the outside, it’s time to take a trip up the tower itself. Social distancing means visitors are restricted to groups of 25 people at a time, which suits me rather well. I’ve been up towers around the world and one of the worst things about them is the way visitors are crammed inside, ruining any chance of a decent viewpoint.

At 55 metres, Pisa’s tower is by no means the tallest in the world. But there are still 296 steps to climb to the top, and no lift. From the outside, it’s unclear that you can climb right to the top of the bell tower, containing seven separate chimes.

Italy was one of the countries worst hit by the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020. Its hospitals were overwhelmed with serious cases and its healthcare system collapsed. But somehow, through a measured and sensible response, things seem pretty much back to normal. By night, Pisa’s restaurants and bars are open. And while face coverings and social distancing are kept under control inside the venues, it’s a different story outside.

This is the Piazza del Vettovaglie, just a couple of minutes walk from the geographical city centre. Seven or eight small bars surround the square, and where you get to sit is a matter of debate and negotiation between customers and staff. You don’t have to sit here for too long to witness table wars breaking out between rival venues, and you shouldn’t be offended if you’re asked to move seats.

The journalist in me tells me I should be worried about the sheer numbers mixing here. On the other hand, everyone is outside, and there don’t seem to be any major warning signs, horrific news stories or the authorities trying to move people on. Like any big city, there is a police presence, as you’d expect on a busy weekend. But it’s almost entirely good natured.

In the past few days we’ve witnessed a number of piazzas of varying size and varying numbers of people. Service is friendly, relaxed and – despite what you might have thought about Italy – remarkably good value. If there’s a small downside it’s the constant presence of hawkers, moving from table to table offering tourists and locals all manner of tat. However, a firm “no thanks” is usually enough to get rid of them. But do watch out for other curiosities – like passing dinosaurs.

It’s deeply annoying when travel plans that have been months in the making are suddenly ripped apart by something entirely uncontrollable. But it’s deeply satisfying to have found somewhere relatively close to home at such short notice – and a location which has delivered on sights, sounds and hospitality.

Pisa is also a city of constant surprises. There’s something different around every corner, including the Tuttomondo mural, the final work by pop culture artist Keith Haring, who died in 1990. It may not be a renaissance masterpiece, but it’s the kind of thing that draws visitor back here again and again.

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