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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. A good reason to make it to the list of best things to do in Tuscany. 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.
Pisa’s big traditional event is the Gioco del Ponte, held on the last Sunday of June, when twelve teams from the north and south banks of the city stage a series of “push-of-war” battles, shoving a seven-tonne carriage over the Ponte di Mezzo. First recorded in 1568, the contest and attendant parades are still held in Renaissance costume. Other celebrations – concerts, regattas, art events – are held throughout June as part of the Giugno Pisano, during which the city has a distinctly festive feel. The most spectacular event is the Luminara di San Ranieri (June 16), when buildings along both river banks are lit by 70,000 candles in honour of Pisa’s patron saint, and there’s a fireworks display at midnight. At 6.30pm the following evening, the various quarters of the city compete in the Palio di San Ranieri, a boat race along the Arno.
The Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente) has always tilted. Begun in 1173, it started to subside when it had reached just three of its eight storeys, but it leaned in the opposite direction to the present one. Odd-shaped stones were inserted to correct this deficiency, whereupon the tower lurched the other way. Over the next 180 years a succession of architects continued to extend the thing upwards, each one endeavouring to compensate for the angle, the end result being that the main part of the tower is slightly bent. Around 1350, Tommaso di Andrea da Pontedera completed the magnificent stack of marble and granite arcades by crowning it with a bell chamber, set closer to the perpendicular than the storeys below it, so that it looks like a hat set at a rakish angle.
By 1990 the tower was leaning 4.5m from the upright and nearing its limits. A huge rescue operation was then launched, which involved wrapping steel bands around the lowest section of the tower, placing 900 tonnes of lead ingots at its base to counterbalance the leaning stonework, removing water and silt from beneath the tower’s foundations, and finally reinforcing the foundations and walls with steel bars. Eleven years and many millions of euros later, the tower was reopened in November 2001.
The ascent to the bell chamber takes you up a narrow spiral staircase of 294 steps, at a fairly disorientating five-degree angle. It’s not for the claustrophobic or those afraid of heights, but you might think the steep admission fee is worth it for the privilege of getting inside one of the world’s most famous and uncanny buildings.
Nearly 30km long by some 20km wide, Elba is Italy’s third-largest island. Ever since Napoleon was exiled here, it has been captivating visitors. It has exceptionally clear water, fine white-sand beaches, and a lush, wooded interior, superb for walking; almost everyone, including a surge of package tourists in July and August, comes for the beach resorts, so the inland villages remain largely quiet even in high season.
Historically, Elba has been well out of the mainstream. The principal industry until World War II was mining, especially of iron ore. The Romans wrote of “the island of good wines” – a reputation Elban wines retain to this day – while control in later centuries passed from Pisa to Genoa and on to the Medici, Spain, Turkey and finally France. That cosmopolitan mix has left its legacy on both architecture and cultivation. Most people know the island as the place of exile for Napoleon, who, after he was banished here in May 1814, revamped education and the legal system, built roads and modernized the economy before escaping back to France in February 1815.
No fewer than 156 beaches dot Elba’s rocky coast, from little-visited shingly coves to broad white sand stretches. The island’s best-known beaches can become packed in high season, but if you don’t mind negotiating the ranks of baking bodies on sunloungers, they offer all the facilities you could wish for, from snack bars to diving centres. The big five are fine-sand Procchio; Fetovaia, with its crystal-clear water; beautiful Cavoli, a sandy arc in a sheltered bay where you can swim well out of season; Marina di Campo, a full-blown resort; and Biodola, occupying an idyllic sweeping bay near Portoferraio. To avoid the worst of the crowds, however, head to one of the beaches below.
Not far from Sansone, this shingly beach is backed by high rocks. The gently sloping seashore makes it a good spot for swimming, especially if you have kids in tow.
Reachable from the beach at Sant’Andrea, this small patch of sandy beach has a natural pool of clear, shallow water formed by two tongues of rock.
In the bay of Biodola, sandy Forno is less busy than Biodola beach itself, set in a lovely little bay, surrounded by villas and dense vegetation. There’s a restaurant here (though it’s the island’s most expensive), as well as snack bars.
Also known as La Polveraia, this sheltered shingly beach on the island’s western coast is always fairly quiet, even in high season. The dark rocks here plunge sheer to the transparent water below.
A dazzling stretch of shingle, enclosed by sheer white cliffs and lapped by clear water.
A lovely, fine sand beach, well set up with sun loungers, parasols and beach bars. A natural rocky barrier keeps the water shallow, and you can rent boats, windsurf and dive here too.
All seven Tuscan Islands, and the seas around them, form the Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago Toscano, the largest protected marine park in Europe. You can take a ferry from Portoferraio or Porto Azzurro to various smaller islands, and from Marina di Campo in the south you can visit the beautiful island of Pianosa, an uninhabited former military base, with great beaches and abundant wildlife. See parks.it and islepark.it for further information.
Top image: Cathedral (Duomo) and the Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy © lkonya/Shutterstock