The leaning tower of Pisa is famous throughout the world and Jerome had wanted to see it for real for a while. I looked into visiting Pisa and found that most visitors stay in Naples and then make a day trip from there to see the tower, however, I knew that if we were going to stay in Naples we would not make it to Pisa as a weekend trip would be too short to see both towns. Instead I booked hotel San Ranieri on the outskirts of Pisa and hired a car for the time of our stay. The hotel was modern and quite cool, we had a lovely room with a spare bed for Jerome and generous breakfast was included in the rate. Direct flights to Pisa helped and reduced the travel for the weekend too.
With a late landing flight we got up on Saturday morning, just in time to have a lazy hotel breakfast. We then drove in our little washing machine on wheels, as the Brits used to call the old Fiat 500, to the car park across from Palazzo dei Congressi, where we could leave the car all day for just a few Euros (make sure you have some change with you). The early spring weather was not as pleasant as we had hoped for, but it did not rain and a thin jacket was enough to keep us warm for this early spring visit. We walked across the river Arno, which flows through Pisa before reaching the sea a few kilometres downriver.
With my penchant for modern art I desperately wanted to see the mural by Keith Haring before visiting the leaning tower. This was the first stop on our route into town. We passed through streets of apartment blocks, before reaching the Piazza di Vittorio Emanuele II. The square had a statue in its midst but I did not pay attention to this as right next to it was the mural by Keith Haring, which covered the entire side of a apartment building. Keith Haring was a child of Pop Art and all his artwork has its own signature. He took inspiration from the Mayan’s, Japanese pictographs and comic books. His art is fun to look at and always very colourful. Jerome liked the animals on the graffiti the most. Sadly Keith Haring died at the young age of 31 in 1990 of Aids but not before establishing a foundation for children with Aids, which to this day still supports other organizations.
We walked on through a narrow pedestrian alley, lined with small shops. It was a busy Saturday morning with many shoppers around. We went into the odd shop that took our fancy, there were plenty of the usual chain stores around but we avoided these choosing the more quirky and local places. At the end of the shopping street we turned right before the river and visited a chocolate shop, San Martino 82, which not only sold its own chocolate but we were also able to watch them make their fine pralines and bars in the back of the store. We were also able to try some of their delicious chocolate and Jerome got an Easter egg for his grandma. We chatted to the friendly staff for a while and they recommended Restaurant Galileo, a few houses down the road to us as an inexpensive and authentic place for lunch. Instead of walking on and looking for a restaurant closer to the tower we got one of the tables with its green-white checked covers and had their excellent set lunch menu before heading deeper into the town.
We crossed the river again at Ponte di Mezzo, which gave us a beautiful view of the houses lining the river on both sides and Jerome immediately spotted an ice cream parlour. There is nothing better than proper Italian Gelati, even better as De’ Coltelli uses organic ingredients and no artificial substances in their ice cream. Chris and Jerome had a gigantic cone each, while I enjoyed my single scoop of sorbet. Besides the standard ice cream flavours they had unusual ones like wasabi and sheep’s cheese with olives.
We strolled on towards into the direction of the tower, ice cream in hand. Instead of heading for the obvious route down the pedestrian zone we turned left into the side streets of the quarter. After a few blocks we stumbled onto the botanical garden. Chris has always been a huge fan of gardens and plants, while Jerome usually likes running around along the paths between the flowerbeds. We discovered that the Orto di Botanico di Pisa was the first university biological garden in Europe. It was founded by the legendary botanist Luca Ghini of Imola to study plants drying them first in order to then be able to draw and study them during the winter season. There was a green house with plant seedlings, many flower beds, some ponds (with an incredible selection of water plants, some of them endangered) and fountains, plus some ancient trees and shrubs.
Spring was already visible here, the camellias were in blooms, as was a magnificent Wisteria or what the Germans call purple rain, which had grown up into a tall tree. Jerome liked the bamboo grove reminding him of Japan.
There also was the most amazing house, completely covered in shells, unlike anything we had seen before of its kind. The museum at the garden houses a Pharaonic collection from ancient Egyptian tombs, which we did not see as we were conscious of the time and wanted to move on to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, after all this was the main reason for our visit.
You will be able to read all about our climb to the top of the tower and the rest of our visit to this wonderful Italian town in our next post.