A flying visit to Pisa

One of Europe’s most iconic buildings, after the Eiffel Tower and London Bridge, is probably the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Driving back to France after a visit to Florence, I could not resist an overnight stop in Pisa just to check out this UNESCO-listed monument.

We drove into the compact town in the late afternoon and discovered it was the perfect time to visit. It was easy to find free parking near the bus station, on the corner of Via Rindi and Via Pietrasantina, just 5 minutes’ stroll from the cathedral and leaning tower. The heat of the day was ebbing and the shadows were lengthening – ideal for some atmospheric photographs of the trio of landmark buildings as we approached.

I had always imagined the Leaning Tower of Pisa situated on a paved piazza surrounded by other buildings in the heart of a busy town. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the gates of the grassy walled compound which houses the cathedral, baptistery and tower in a scene straight from Legoland! Families were strolling in the park and, although it was busy, the tour buses and crowds had largely dissipated. The walled complex includes the round Baptistery (started in 1152), the Romanesque-style Cathedral (1064AD) and the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa (1173AD), which is actually the free-standing campanile or belltower of the cathedral.

The buildings are stunning white with coloured marble decoration, intricately carved columns, rounded arches and many statues and domes – all beautiful. Many different hues of marble were used to create colourful columns.

After taking the obligatory first photographs of the Tower jutting out from behind the Cathedral, we headed to the ticket office. Although access to the Cathedral and viewing the exterior of the Leaning Tower is free, you need a timed ticket to enter the Cathedral. Other options which attract an admission fee include climbing the Tower, entering the Baptistery and entrance to the onsite museum.

With our timed ticket we entered the beautiful cathedral, built over 1000 years ago. Blocks were taken from older Roman buildings and now add to the interest with their carved inscriptions (often upside down!) It was cool and surprisingly light and bright inside. The Cathedral rises high above beautiful marble flooring supported by rows of Byzantine double arches. The walls are covered in huge oil paintings, adding to the grandeur and beauty of the space. Side chapels preserve the relics of saints beneath a gold coffered ceiling and the magnificent pulpit is supported by an extraordinary arrangement of carved statues and animals.

Moving on from the Cathedral, the Belltower is remarkable as it leans significantly, sloping into the soft ground at the base. Even the doorway is sunk and tilted. I cannot imagine what it must be like to climb the 296 carved steps making up the surreal spiral staircase like an optical illusion. Stacks of columns support each of the eight floors of the Belltower and there are still some bells hanging at the top.

It was a very surreal, peaceful and happy place to be in the evening as families strolled and children played on the grass where a “fallen angel” statue had crash-landed, making us smile. After peeping inside the beautiful round Baptistery and browsing the gift shop and souvenir stalls nearby, we headed into town for another wonderful dining experience that the Italians do so well.