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The Leaning Tower of Pisa

[Pisa, Italy]

I remember seeing pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa when I was growing up, and thought it’d be so fascinating to see this leaning building up close. Today, I got my wish.

Pisa is an easy 75-minute train ride away from Florence. The only hard part for me was finding my train, which was not clearly marked! I ran around a bit and got really vague directions from train employees at the station, but eventually I found it and confirmed the destination with other passengers on the train.

The Leaning Tower gets all the glory, but it’s actually part of a gleaming white architectural complex that also includes a cathedral and a baptistery. A grand green square called the Field of Miracles is in the middle of all this, full of tourists who ignore the “No walk on grass” sign and pose for that classic fake perspective photo where you’re seen either pushing the tower down or struggling to keep it from falling.

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa was started in 1173, likely under the direction of architect Bonanno Pisano. Five years later, as the base and the first arcade were finished, someone noticed that the thing is crooked. The tower is heavy (14,000 tons), with a shallow foundation (only 13 feet) and built over marshy, unstable soil – so no surprise, right? The builders carried on anyway, finishing four stories total. Suddenly, construction stopped – we don’t know why – and did not pick up again until a century later. The next architect tried to correct the problem by building the next three stories so that they tilt backward. Then the project halted again for another century. Finally, Tommaso Pisano put the belfy on the top at the end of the 14th century.

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After the tower was built, several attempts were made to stop its lean. Architect Giorgio Vasari (known for the Vasari corridor above the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence that connects the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace) reinforced the base mid-16th-century until it actually worked, until the mid 19th century, when some engineers pumped out groundwater in the area and de-stabilized the tower so much that is started leaning faster, at the rate of 1 millimeter per year. It got so bad, that the tower was closed in the 1990 for repairs. Several different tactics were attempted, but the one that worked was pumping out 60 tons of soil from the North side (the tower leans South). This straightened the lean by about six inches, or half a degree. The tower now leans at a 5-degree angle. Many people don’t realize that the rest of the buildings in the complex lean as well, just not by this much and it’s not as visible because they are not so tall.

I dutifully climbed up the tower, like I have been climbing everything else there is to climb around here. The lean is very evident as you climb, pulling you to one side of the wall or the other as you go up the narrow staircase. Only 45 people can climb the tower every 30 minutes (timed tickets are purchased either in advance or when you arrive), which makes the climb much less crowded than just about any other site I’ve visited. The view from the top is superb, especially of the giant cathedral by the tower.

I also visited the baptistery. Inside, it’s simple and spacious. Tall arches encircle just a few pieces of religious furniture. I took some stairs to a terrace about half way up to the top, where I enjoyed views of the ground floor as well as of the surrounding complex. One window has an especially awesome view of the front of the cathedral, with the top few stories of the leaning tower jutting out from behind. It made for a great photo, and there was a handy little cutout in the mesh on the window for taking one.

The neat thing about the baptistery, is that it was also intended as a musical instrument. The acoustics are just amazing, and every half hour, the security guard walks in and sings a few tones to demonstrate this – a very neat experience!

My visit to Pisa was complete with a gelato stop at La Bottega del Gelato, half way between the tower and the train station. Rick Steves says this is the best gelato in Pisa and for me personally, it was likely the best gelato I’ve tasted in Italy so far.

A leisurely afternoon in Florence awaited. Sarah and I went for afternoon coffee at the square around the corner from her house, then popped into Santo Spirito church. The sacristy contains a carved wooden crucifix attributed to a 17-year-old Michelangelo.

Tonight was our last meal together in Florence, since I am taking a day trip to Venice tomorrow. We went to Sarah’s favorite restaurant in town and had a classic Italian dinner, and I don’t mean just food-wise – we spent over 3 hours there drinking a litter of vino and having a great conversation. It really only felt like half an hour. I was one of those magical moments when the food, the setting and most of all your company come together for one delightful, unforgettable dining experience.

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