Thanks to its Leaning Tower, PISA is known by name to just about every visitor to Italy, though it remains an underrated place, seen by most people on a whistle-stop day-trip that takes in nothing of the city except the tower and its immediate environs.
For too many tourists, Pisa means just one thing – the Leaning Tower, which serves around the world as a shorthand image for Italy. It is indeed a freakishly beautiful building, a sight whose impact no amount of prior knowledge can blunt. Yet it is just a single component of Pisa’s breathtaking Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles, where the Duomo, Baptistry and Camposanto complete a dazzling architectural ensemble. These amazing buildings belong to Pisa’s Golden Age, from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, when the city was one of the maritime powers of the Mediterranean. Decline set in with defeat by the Genoese in 1284, followed by the silting-up of Pisa’s harbour, and from 1406 the city was governed by Florence, whose rulers re-established the University of Pisa, one of the great intellectual establishments of the Renaissance – Galileo was a teacher here. Subsequent centuries saw Pisa fade into provinciality, though landmarks from its glory days now bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and the combination of tourism and a large student population give the contemporary city a lively feel.
It has to be said that visiting the Campo in high season is not a calming experience – the tourist maelstrom here can be fierce. Within a short radius of the Campo dei Miracoli, however, Pisa takes on a quite different character, because very few tourists bother to venture far from the shadow of the Leaning Tower. To the southeast of the Campo, on the river, you’ll find the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, a fine collection of ecclesiastical art and sculpture, while west along the Arno stands another good museum, the Palazzo Reale, which faces the exquisite little Santa Maria della Spina, on the opposite bank.
A solid strip of unattractive beach resorts stretches north along the coast from near Pisa to the Ligurian border. This Riviera della Versilia ought to be something more special, given the dramatic backdrop of the Alpi Apuane, but the beaches share the coastal plain with a railway, autostrada and clogged urban roads, while the sea itself is far from being the cleanest in Italy. The resort of Viareggio provides a lively diversion on a coastal journey north to the stunning Cinque Terre. Otherwise, the only real appeal lies inland, exploring the famed marble-quarrying centre of Carrara.