Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Italy: Day 12: Last day, Pisa

My mother and sister wandered up into the hills above our guest house to further admire the views while I finished and submitted my grad school essays. Then we ate another scrumptious train food court meal (fresh tuna and cured meat sandwiches), hopped on another train, again admired the stunning Apennines and the piles of marble mined from them that lined the tracks, and pulled into Pisa not long after.

Pisa was not at all what I expected. Its streets were calm, well-lived-in, with more posh clothing and food shops than tourist traps. Though an incredibly ancient city, its buildings were low and spanned a wide range of ages. Its frontage along the river Arno was smooth and utilitarian and colorful, a pleasant change from Florence and the like. Its population was surprisingly diverse, with noticeable vibrant minorities of people of Asian and African descent. And most delightfully, its tower and accompanying buildings were not the tacky trollops I anticipated, but were stark and arresting in their elegance and simplicity.

The iconic leaning tower is in fact a bell-tower for the cathedral that anchors the spacious Piazza dei Miracoli. The brilliantly green grassy field holds only four buildings: the aforementioned tower and duomo, plus a baptistery and a graveyard structure. The openness of the public space is unique in Italy, where most equivalent buildings are situated crammed amongst the bustle of unrelated structures. The buildings are spare and elegant, featuring the blindingly white marble and smooth lines of their construction rather than much fuss and ornament. The architects’ and city planners’ forward thinking is all the more remarkable when you consider that they designed this space and its buildings around the year 1000. The interior of the unassuming Baptistery is particularly striking, echoing the best of Roman architecture with graceful arches reaching up to an ambitiously high dome. Perhaps most unique, the cemetery building is designed to be a church of the dead, shaped in a cathedral’s cross but with the center nave roofless and open to the heavens.

Climbing the tower was a strange experience. Remember, of course, that it is leaning. Now think about what a spiral staircase tilted at an angle would be like to walk up and down on. Now make there be no handrail, and make the steps very very worn slippery marble. It was more of a challenge than I had anticipated, but the views from the top across the roofs of the ancient city to the dramatic mountains encircling was well worth the drunken funhouse experience of the stairs.

Our accomodations in Pisa, excellently located by my sister, were in the simple but comfortable Pensione Helvetica, a large and very clean hotel that was inexpensive at 20 Euro per person per night. I was humored to find it was run by a Thai family, and enjoyed their Thai-style courtyard garden (read proliferate potted plants and decorative duckweed with random laundry and trampoline and hand-welded decorative fence). I’d highly recommend it to anyone staying briefly in Pisa.

We dined at a restaurant overlooking the leaning tower that, though catering to the tourist set, was deservedly Lisa-Approved. From their vast menu we enjoyed a sampler of Tuscan bruschettas (mystery pate, lard) that were much tastier than you’d think, as well as a rich dish of gnocchi and fresh crab meat, a serving of roast pork, and my personal favorite, a massive pile of simple sautéed chard-like greens, accompanied by the required local Chianti.

My mother and my flight back to the US left at 7 am the next morning, so we called it an early evening and awoke at a stupidly early hour to get to the airport, only to find the counters not yet open. Once we were able to check in, we were hustled through a surprisingly out-of-date airport experience, with minimal security, tiny spartan waiting accommodations, and a bus across the tarmac to the plane, which we boarded by climbing the stairs to the side. It was more like the Cambodian airports than any developed-country airports I’ve visited.

Which brings me to a concluding observation about Italy: Though it’s a fairly prosperous western European country, it remains in many ways surprisingly undeveloped. Its infrastructure, its politics, and the lifestyles of its inhabitants have remained much less changed by modern life than its neighbors. The new structures built are much like the very old structures, without many “improvements”. The electricity and potable water is haphazard, though fairly reliable. Family, food, drink, church, and public events (including sports) are the priorities, rather than maximizing profits, consumerism, materialism, individualism. In general, it reminded me more of Thailand than America. And in many ways, I felt more at home in this throwback context than my comfortable apartment in NYC.


A'Llyn said...

Thanks for the posts! I really enjoyed reading about your trip and seeing all your gorgeous photos.

You've convinced me I must go to Italy someday! Playing 'Assassin's Creed' is close, but... :)

hsofia said...

Loved this post and the things you chose to highlight. I loved Italy the one time I visited.