By Katie Ryde, Contributory Writer
Most people heading to the Tuscan city of Pisa will be going with one thing on their mind – the famous Leaning Tower – but for many visitors this is just a brief stop off while travelling to or from Florence. Certainly Pisa doesn’t have the highest number of attractions compared to its neighbours, but in fact there are many hidden gems concealed amongst Pisa’s medieval lanes that are well worth taking the time to explore.
There’s no way you can visit this city without a stop off at what is better known as The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Built by Bonnano Pisano in 1173, only three tiers were completed before it started tilting due to sinking soil. Somehow the marble tower had a further four tiers added to it, and with the help of some re-construction work in the 1990′s it’s still standing today. Go and take the obligatory photograph as you ‘hold up’ the Tower, but if you want to go inside I would suggest booking ahead as visits are limited to groups of 30 at organised times.
Campo dei Miracoli
While you’re at The Leaning Tower, have a look around, because you’ll be standing in the Field of Miracles, and the Campanile itself is the bell tower to an incredible Cathedral. Its’ beautiful striped façade gives way to an interior, which despite a catastrophic fire in 1595 that destroyed much of the medieval art work, is still worth paying the entrance fee (about 6 Euros for two of the monuments in the square). Inside you’ll find the spectacular gothic pulpit built by Giovanni Pisano in 1302, with reliefs depicting various bible scenes. The most notable of the eight sided pulpit is the ‘Massacre of the Innocents.’ Also worth visiting are the Baptistery and the Campo Santo – a most beautiful cemetery originally built to hold the holy soil brought back during the Crusades from the mount where Christ was crucified. It was the burial ground for Pisa’s upper class for centuries and is also home to 84 Roman Sarcophagi from the 3rd century AD.
Orto Botanico di Pisa
A short walk from the Campo dei Miracoli, lies the oldest university-owned botanical gardens, and a chance for some peace away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds in the square. An entrance fee of 2.50 Euros is required, and once inside it is easy to forget you’re in a city at all. Visit the gardens for a bit of peace as well as to encounter the beauty and history of some very old plants – the Magnolia Grandiflora was planted in 1787. There are also samples of various plants both medicinal and edible, coffee, pepper and passionflower to name a few. Relax by the pond covered in water lilies and enjoy some time-out from the busier tourist attractions.
National Museum of San Matteo
To be in Italy is to be surrounded by beautiful artwork, and Pisa is no exception. Situated in the old San Matteo Benedictine convent and overlooking the River Arno, this stunning museum houses not only a wide collection of medieval ceramics from the 13th century, but also paintings and sculptures ranging from the 12th century up until the 18th. Well known artists exhibited here include Ghirlandaio, Donatello and Simone Martini. There are also various works from the school of Pisano. This is a wonderful place to discover some fine Italian art work, and at 5 Euros entry, it’s a great place to start.
Running off the Piazza dei Cavalieri (worth a look at as the home of the Knights of St Stephen, and for the large busts of the Medici family topping the Palazzo dei Cavalieri –Knight’s Palace) is the Borgo Stretto. Archways cover the walkway of this street, which is home to some of Pisa’s more expensive shopping and restaurants, but if you can’t afford the prices of the shops, it’s still a great place to enjoy an espresso and do some people watching. It’s also the street on which the scientist Galileo is said to have lived.
Santa Maria della Spina
The name Spina comes from a thorn from Christ’s crown which was apparently brought here in 1333. This Gothic church is a fantastic example of architecture, and its pinnacles, cusps, rose windows and arches all built from marble make the exterior well worth a visit. Situated on the River Arno, this extraordinary masterpiece, adorned with statues, some of which are attributed to Giovanni Pisano, was rebuilt on higher ground in 1871 to protect it from the river. The interior in comparison is rather plain but does hold another Pisano sculpture, this one by Andrea and Nino, ‘The Madonna of the Rose’.
These are just a few of Pisa’s must-see sights. This city is steeped in history and just by wandering the streets you can chance upon all sorts of fascinating medieval buildings and things to see. This is after all a place that houses one of the oldest universities in Europe, as well as many historical churches and palaces. It is certainly well worth spending the extra time here to discover these often over-looked gems and to enjoy the general beauty of a place that has much more to offer than just a Leaning Tower.