Travel Series: Pisa

Pisa! Our first day trip! I’m writing this from Bismarck, North Dakota, where I’m spending the weekend for my birthday (happy 19th to me!), but I can’t help but wish I was back in Pisa today.

This city holds a special place in my heart. (You’ll find me saying that about basically every city… just bear with me). I wanna start by saying there is SO much more to this city than I originally thought. I thought it was just a tiny town with the leaning tower, and was surprised to see just how large the city actually was. This city is home to almost 100,000 people, and many more tourist attractions than just the leaning tower.

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One of my favorite photos, showing the tower, cathedral, and baptistry all in one

We woke up around nine that morning to get going, grabbing some cookies for the drive (these became our staple breakfast when we were on the run). Elvio sat out this leg of the trip, but we picked up two of Gin’s friends, Valentina and Jack, about a half hour outside of Florence in Empoli. With five of us in the car, it was just a little tight. Despite the lack of leg room, we sang our hearts out for the rest of the ride to Pisa. It was another hot summer day, around 90 degrees, but we seemed to be getting used to the heat. Once we got into the cathedral area, we saw the tower for the first time. It may only be leaning at 5 degrees, but it looks like much more. There were about a million tourists taking their photos ‘holding up the tower’. We bought our tickets and made our way to the cathedral first. In most of the churches, they require that you have your knees and shoulders covered before coming in. Emily and I carried giant, light scarves around in our bags to throw over our shoulders whenever we went into a cathedral, which is a great travel hack for travelling in the summer. In some of the churches, they handed out plastic ponchos to cover your shoulders, but those were a little embarassing to wear, but I guess if it gets you in, it’s worth it.

The cathedral was absolutely stunning on the inside and the outside. There was a little construction, but they did well to cover it up and keep the cathedral looking presentable. Next up was the baptistry. Outside was beautiful, but inside was a little bit underwhelming. Maybe they were working on some restorations, but I’m not sure. We climed up to the second floor and got a great view of the main floor. The pulpit and actual baptizing area were made of ornately carved wood; much more impressive than the rest of the baptistry. Next on the agenda was the old cemetery. It was super peaceful, but it was strange to walk on top of the graves in the open air building. Some of the graves had the silhouettes of the dead body etched into the stone, instead of just having an inscription, which was both fascinating and terrifying all at once. The math nerd in me geeked out a little when we saw the grave of Fibonacci. Some of the walls were being redone, but they covered them with pictures of the frescoes so you couldn’t really even tell the difference.

Finally, it was time for the tower. It was strange to climb, because you could really feel the tilt, which I wasn’t expecting. There was a darker streak along the wall from people holding on while climbing, which was not surprising, because the stone stairs were warped from almost a thousand years of use (the tower was built in 1173). After 251 exhausting, somewhat treacherous steps, we saw the gorgeous view from the top of the tower. It hit me then just how lucky I was to have this opportunity. How many people can say that they’ve climbed the leaning tower of Pisa?

Once we finished up with the super tourist-y stuff, we got a quick lunch and started exploring the city. We came across the University of Pisa, which was founded in 1343, the 19th oldest University in the world, ranking #10 in the country and the top 400 in the world. We also found Palazzo dell’Orologio, which is famous for being the place where Count Ugolino and his family were held as prisoner and died. After wandering for a while longer, we found ourselves on the bank of the Arno River. We got some gelato, which was of course delicious, and then walked down the riverside. We came across a seemingly miniature church called Santa Maria della Spina, which had a thorn from the crown of thorns of Jesus as its relic. It was strikingly beautiful, all sharp edges and hard points that set it apart from any other churches we saw, that, and the size. In 1871, the entire church was dismantled and moved higher up the river to keep it safe from flooding. They raised it almost a meter, with only minor damages, shockingly. Most people make the mistake of simply viewing the tower and leaving, but, while climbing the tower was amazing, the most fun I had was just exploring the little side streets of this beautiful city.

Before heading out of Pisa, we stopped by some small shops. I found a super cute pink floppy hat, and Gin bargained for me in Italian, given how bad I was at bargaining. I wore the hat for a few days of the trip, and carried it across the Italian countryside before it came to a tragic end in Rome (stay tuned for end of that story). After getting me the hat, we tried our hand at geocaching with Gin and her friends. We found a few while in Pisa, and ended up following the geocaching map for most of the trip. Basically, there are little objects hidden in historical sites, all around the world. There’s an app you can download with maps that give you hints as to where you find the “caches”. You can check out the game here. Finally, we headed back to Florence for a home-cooked Italian dinner, courtesy of Gin and her friends Cecilia, Andrea, and Guido. When we got there, Guido was making melon wrapped in prosciutto, which we kept stealing while he made them. Andrea cooked us ravioli stuffed with potatoes, covered in a tomato and meat sauce. We also got to sample several different types of wine.

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After dinner and probably a few too many glasses of wine, we packed into Gin’s car (Gin and Andrea skipped the wine), and drove up to Fiesole, a city so old it’s surrounded by Etruscan walls, for the most perfect panoramic view of Florence at night. We had to climb quite a ways up, but it was worth it, as it always is. The way back down took us a while due to steep and narrow roads. Multiple times while driving down, we had to stop, back up, and let another car drive through, because there wasn’t enough room for both cars to pass. Andrea did well to handle the Italian road range I’m sure he was feeling. By the time we got back to Elvio’s, it was almost 1:30 am, so we went right to bed so we’d get a good night’s sleep for our next day in Cinque Terre!

Stay tuned for more updates!

xoxo, second sister suzie

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