Tuesday, 21 May 2013


View from the Ponte alla Fortezza

We are in Pisa to meet up with brother- and sister-in-law Ric and Gabriella, who are over from Canada on a lecture tour. We are staying in a hotel just by the station, so we started our walk around Pisa from there. We walked up to the Piazza Vittore Emanuale and then headed east to see the Sangallo Bastion by the river Arno. We walked round the not-very-photogenic brick fortifications to the Scotti Gardens. There was one substantial tower in the outer wall.

It was rather a low-key introduction to the city: most cities would perhaps have made more of their old fortifications - but of course Pisa has sights to trump anything so mundane. Things looked up when we first the first bridge over the river, the Ponte alla Fortezza, with lovely views down river.

We walked along the right bank to the main bridge, the Ponte de Mezzo. There has been a bridge here forever, but the present rather unispiring single reinforced concrete arch dates only from 1950. There was another fantastic view however down river. (I confess that this picture was taken two days later, when the river was calmer and the sky clearer, but the beautiful reflections justify it I think.)

We walked part way across the bridge to see the imposing Loggia di Banchi. It dates from about 1600 and once was the wool and silk market, and also housed money changers’ stalls and the cereal market.

We turned into the arcaded Borgo Stretto to soon be staggered by the facade of San Michele in Borgo, rising out of the narrow street. The facade dates from the 1300s.

Borgo Stretto leads to the Piazza Cavalier, with the imposing Palazzo Cavalieri on the right. This was rebuilt by the great art historian Giorgio Vasari at the command of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who had decided to found the seafaring military order of Knights of St. Stephen in 1558 and provide them with headquarters.

Just to the left is the Palazzo dell' Orologio which was created in the 17th century by linking together two medieval buildings.

Another six or seven minutes walk brought us to the edge of the Campo dei Miracoli and our first sight since we were her in 1997 of the Leaning Tower. We decided to continue with our walk and return in two days to climb it, which was not possible. It is the campanile (bell tower) of the duomo (cathedral) and was begin in 1173 and apparently started to lean even before it was completed. It was closed to visitors in 1990. The solution to prevent the collapse of the tower was to slightly straighten the tower to a safer angle, by removing soil from underneath the raised side. The tower was straightened by 45 centimeters (18 inches), returning to its 1838 position. It is still 3.9m out of the perpendicular.

Then there is the magnificent duomo. It was begun before the Tower, in 1064, and defines the Pisan Romanesque style, which we expect to see more of in Lucca tomorrow.

Finally, there is the huge separate baptistry, a feature of northern Italian cathedrals. It was started in 1152, but took two centuries to complete.

The three buildings together make an overwhelmingly wonderful group, set in a huge grassy space with walls on three sides.

We eventually dragged ourselves away and walked through the grounds of the hospital back towards the river past a nameless tower to admire a handsome alms-house building on the far bank: a 15th century Benedictine monastery.

Also on the other bank, to the right of the monastery and out of view was the church of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno, which was apparently the site of the city's first cathedral. The current church was built ion the 13th century in the style of the duomo. The church is closed and seems abandoned; we were shocked by the bad state of repair. In front of it, also looking the worse for wear, is the 13th century chapel of Saint Agatha. I suppose when you have such riches, the second division of monuments seem unimportant.

Finally, we walked along the banks of the Arno to the exquisite little chapel of Santa Maria della Spina. It was rebuilt in 1324 in the Pisan Gothic style and moved further away from the river in 1871 for fear of flooding.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: By the time we got back to hotel we had done about 5 miles.

Rating: five stars.

Reference: As I was writing this, I stumbled on the excellent site of the Commune of Pisa which has a wealth of information on the buildings of the city, walking routes and all kinds of useful stuff.

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