A Very Good Friday in Pisa

A Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy

Part 5, A Very Good Friday in Pisa

As the third week of my Italian adventure draws to a close I find I am developing quite a fondness for the railway system, and so when the day came to explore Pisa, western Tuscany’s mega-monster tourist attraction, the decision to take the train was a simple and obvious one, for while my last post extolled the joys of roaming Tuscany’s wonderful mountain roads by car there seemed absolutely no point putting myself through the tension and anxiety of navigating the confusing congestion that inevitably engulf a city of Pisa’s global renown.

And so, bang on time, as they always seem to be, my ride arrived late in the morning of Friday the eighteenth of April, 2014 and whisked me directly to Pisa in minutes flat, and as with all the train rides I have enjoyed these past weeks the carriage was clean, unvandalized, the seats comfortable and relaxing as we flew through the countryside with impressive speed.

On my arrival at Pisa however I was unaware of the fact that there are not one but two railway stations in the city center and as I picked my way through the strangely humble and domesticated landscape pondering the complete lack of civic grandeur, all of a sudden, quite unexpectedly – bingo! There is was, the famous tower peeking up between the parked cars. How could that be? According to my research the Duomo and its lilting bell tower were supposed to be on the other side of town, across the Arno, and so immediately my master plan had been scuppered. I had intended to spend the bulk of the day wandering the ancient city center, busying myself with the multitude of museums, churches, streets and sights that I had read about when planning my trip. I’d learned about the hordes that descend each morning to swarm the Piazza del Miracoli in quite miraculous numbers and had concocted a plan to save the best for last, as it were, and arrive at an appointed hour whereby I imagined them all to be eating dinner. But alas, that was not quite to be, for the strangely desolate station that greeted my arrival had literally turned my map upside down, and here I was staring directly at the iconic tower not two minutes after hopping off the train.

Picking way through the sea of venders encamped by the ancient city walls I crossed the threshold of the gate and stumbled upon a scene of utter tumult, and the closer I came to the tower the more I became aware of a sort of massed frenzy, until, arriving at an apparently prized spot just yards from the foot of the tower I began to wonder whether my fellow tourists had all dropped acid with their continental breakfasts as all social barriers, all societal norms appeared to have been abandoned as seemingly ordinary people, from every corner of the world, gleefully indulged in the most spectacular show of uninhibited public exhibitionism I have ever witnessed.

Believe me, the pictures you see are but the tip of the iceberg – a mere sampling of the strange behavior that seemed to have taken hold of the crowd to a point whereby anyone it seemed could, would, and did do the most unlikely things – to the complete joy, encouragement and unending amusement of their companions.

Even I found myself caught up in the frenzy and immediately snapped a ‘selfie’ as the madness swept over me! However, in an attempt to rescue my original plan I continued on my way through the plaza  and on towards the city center, leaving the lunatics to enjoy their asylum and vowing to coordinate my return at a time when they hopefully would be twirling their forks into plates of spaghetti later in the day.

And so I took heart when I found myself wading against a tide of humanity headed in the opposite direction: surely by the time I return all these people will be heading back to town, and so it ultimately proved. But at this point the all thoughts of towers, leaning otherwise, began to rescind as I strode on through a cityscape that appeared to be getting more interesting with each step I took.

Although in bad need of a cappuccino I continued to put distance behind me plunging into and through the very heart of the city; the tacky wacky leaning tower memorabilia gradually vanished to be replaced by a complement of interesting stores, the variety and quality of which are sadly becoming increasingly rare these days; independent booksellers, stylish cafes, fashion houses, toy shops, you name it.

Eventually however I found a nice little café, the kind of unpretentious establishment to which I have grown a fondness for, and accustomed to, in the towns and cities not boasting a leaning tower or a David, and enjoyed my hard earned rest: now I could contemplate the remainder of my day and plan a strategic route by which to roam and explore every corner the old city.

I’m really not sure just how far I cover on foot while exploring these fascinating ancient Italian cities but the state of near complete exhaustion I feel at the end of the day suggests it might register a great deal more mileage than I care to imagine. However, revived by my delicious coffee I set off to wrack up more miles under foot with a twisting winding circuit that held me increasingly spellbound with each new vista, clearly this city had far more to offer than a tilting tower.

Quite unexpectedly I found myself engrossed, nay mesmerized, by the Palazzo Blu’s touring science exhibit, an ambitious high tech project that attempted to explain practically every facet of mankind’s attempts to come to grips with the world – from the very earliest attempts to understand the natural elements to the most recent developments in atom splitting. In short it was nothing less than amazing. Normally I don’t like to spend too much time indoors when I am exploring a city but the sheer inventiveness of the displays, the interactive nature of it all, and the technical expertise utilized in explaining to plebs like me the intricate details of our species’ rise from the murk had me spellbound, to the point where I must have spent at least a couple of hours ogling, interacting and admiring the various elaborate displays. But eventually I realized that if the day was not to be lost, however fascinating the exhibits were, I had to tear myself away and plunge back into the mysterious labyrinth that is Pisa.

The next oddity to catch my eye took the form of an immensely fragile jewel box of a building that looked as if someone had just sliced the top off a gothic chapel and carefully placed it on the banks of the Arno river. How it escaped the allied bombing and artillery that by some accounts was responsible for the missing 40 percent of Pisa’s ancient architecture is quite beyond me. Grabbing my trusty Lonely Planet Tuscan guide book I learned (at least I think I learned as there was no picture accompanying the information) that this precious looking folly was built to enshrine an actual, real thorn from the actual real crown of Jesus. As far as I could tell I was looking at the Chisea di Santa Maria della Spina, built between 1223 and 1230, but as it was closed, with no visible clues as to just what it was I’ll have to settle for my best guess. But whatever name it went by it certainly kept this rogue carver captivated and enthralled for more than a moment or two. But if indeed this little jewel box did indeed house a reliquary from Christ’s crucifixion there was nothing to indicate the fact given that it was, by the look of things, permanently closed; and if it was ever to open then surely Good Friday would be a prime date in which to find the keys and unlock it.

I was pondering this when I stumbled upon a church that brought the realities of a Tuscan Good Friday front and center. My attention was immediately caught by a large and realistic looking crucifix almost filling the entrance. Stepping inside I was reminded of how devoutly religious Italy is as I witnessed a church service attended by a large flock of eager children who seemed to be performing a ‘way of the cross’ service lead by an extremely popular and personable priest who stood just inches taller than his eager youngsters. As I watched I was quite moved by the sincerity shown not only by the attendant parents – mostly mothers, but the children themselves, they seemed to be actively enjoying their participation. Further afield and away from the activities peopled knelt in silent prayer, eyes closed, emotion rippling across their faces as they silently communed with their god as though he was right there on the side of their closed eyelids.

During the course of the afternoon I witnessed many such scenes in many churches, all of them resplendently wreathed with the most beautiful and abundant flower arrangements adorning the alter and accompanying shrines, the rows of candles burning in numbers that left no doubt as to the deep significance of holiness of this day in the Christian calendar. Later I felt a little bad about taking those pictures as I was reprimanded on another occasion for attempting to capture the scene with my camera. What moved and impressed me was the deep human emotion I witnessed as the devout poured out their souls on a day of deep significance both to them and the church in which they knelt, no doubt reflecting on their own woes along with the suffering of their savior whose image, nailed to the cross, to which they now bowed their heads.

Eventually however more earthly and mundane matters captured my own thoughts as hunger caught up with me and my mind turned towards food and the prospect of just where to eat became a central theme. Now, I ascribe to several cast iron rules that have served me quite well down through the years: never eat in a restaurant displaying photos of their food, never ever EVER eat fast food, and whenever I find myself outside the English speaking world never eat in a place where the local language does not predominate. Imagine my surprise then when I found myself enticed into a coffee shop that not only boasted “Bagels”, “Cheesecake” and “Brownies”, but also proudly proclaimed, in English, that they “love to make coffee for the city that loves coffee”!

But there I was, drawn like a magnet into a beautiful coffee shop of quite stunning original design, and with a panache that told me the amazing looking food on display would taste precisely as good as it looked… and I was not to be disappointed.

‘Filter’ is run by two of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet, Eleanora and Valentino, and this gleaming coffee emporium, both stylish and immaculately clean, had me counting my lucky stars that I had not succumbed to the seemingly endless tourist traps, all serving practically the same tired fare, that crowd the main thoroughfares around the Duomo. And should you find yourself visiting Pisa you would do well to take note of Filter and establish it as your coffee home away from home for the entire duration of your stay. The address, well, to be truthful I’m not really sure… but you can follow them on Facebook and that’s precisely what I suggest you do; ‘Filter’ and ‘Pisa’ should take you there, and even if you never physically make it to this wonderful foodie haven simply following the exploits of these two gifted and charismatic women should serve to capture and maintain your interest as I imagine they are bound for great things.

Suitably refreshed and nourished I embarked upon another hour or two of wandering through the last remaining corners of the old city that I had not yet explored until finally, with the day growing long, I made my way back to the ‘Plaza of Miracles’ and was relieved and gratified that my cunning plan had indeed worked – the square was largely empty, with not one tenth of the vast hordes of people I had picked my way through on my arrival earlier in the day. Snagging my ticket I secured a place on the last tour of the day. It was by now 6:30 in the evening and with my tour beginning at 7:15 it allowed for a tour of the breathtaking perfection of Baptistry. Quite stunning from the outside the huge round building presented an interior that simply puts me at a loss for words: the acoustics, the light, the otherworldly atmosphere was something to behold.

I imagine perhaps a dozen people shared the twenty-five minutes or so that I spent soaking up every sensation this amazing building presented, but not wanting to miss out on the star attraction I made sure I was in line early enough that my climb to the top of the tower would not be placed in jeopardy by a late arrival, and so I reluctantly left the Baptistry behind and headed in the direction of the one, the only, the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa.

To be honest I hadn’t really given much thought to exactly how it would feel to climb those stairs, or even to be within the tower itself, but from the very moment I stepped foot into the place I was aware of a peculiar sensation; an almost immediate dizzy sensation, a disorientation… strange but not entirely unpleasant – and perhaps it was this giddiness that accounts for the near mass hysteria I had witnessed earlier in the day, but for the entire 40 minutes or so that I was captive to the tower the feeling neither diminished nor went away, it was, at least for me, an ever-present sensation.

Having spotted the entrance to the spiral staircase I made sure that I was the first of our group to mount the worn down marble steps and (given that I live at almost 8,000 feet, and I say with all modesty…) bounded up them with energetic zeal that this sea-level oxygen-rich air is apt to supply. And when I reached the top what a spectacle awaited the eye!

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As with all tourist it was the view that immediately caught my eye, stretching out towards an unbroken skyline I found it utterly absorbing. Looking down on the mighty cathedral (and you don’t get to say that often), with the Baptistery forming a backdrop was a vista I will never forget. The sheer amount of work those medieval masons carved and placed, seemingly out of sight from ground level, is quite astonishing… and made me scold myself for my casual decision to leave my binoculars back in my room.

Eventually my interest turned to the sight of the massive bells and pulling myself away from the railings I climbed the few steps into the bell tower itself and was brought face to face by the unlikely spectacle of so many huge bronze bells in such a tight area. Furthermore these bells were not rung via ropes, as with most church bells, but had to be maneuvered using the hand grips – four to a bell, meaning the bell ringers had to be in such proximity to the noise that I cannot imagine how it would not deafen them. But as I was mulling this over another thought occurred to me – how did the masons construct the last three floors, when the tower was already leaning as precariously as it does today, without the crucial aid of plumbline or level? It beggars belief!

But then I got to think about the bells – all those bells. There was room for ten in all, five large and five massive, and when all ten were swinging I couldn’t imagine the torque, never mind the vibration, that they would exert on a tall masonry tower such as this. For one thing I know is that if you wish to loosen anything the best plan is to rock it from from sided to side. As it was I was feeling queasy at the prospect of simply being in a tower as precariously tipped as this, but if all those bells were clanging back and forth I think I would be scarred half to death.

Sooner than I would have wished however our time was up and our little group ushered down the steps and out onto a near deserted plaza. With the light diminishing by the minute there was just sufficient time to gaze at the impressive bas relief bible scenes adorning the massive cathedral doors, soak in the special atmosphere that is the Duomo at twilight, turn and retrace my steps back to the station.

If I’m honest prior to my visit I felt a certain hesitance to visit the city that has single-handedly inspired more kitch than perhaps any other (not least my very own Leaning Tower of Woody Creek) but my Pisan Good Friday far exceeded anything I had imagined and will I am sure remain one of the highlights of my Tuscan adventure long after my three months are up and I revisit the exquisite sights and sounds and sensations of the day in my mind’s eye from the familiar comforts of my Coloradan Rocky Mountain home.

Until next time,

Cheers!

Martin