Everyone has heard of the leaning tower of Pisa, and seen a picture of it, and that’s about as much as I knew. To be brutally honest, I remember thinking as a child it was some sort of Roman ruin, and I couldn’t wait to go to Rome to see it, because that’s where Roman things are. At some point in my teenage hood, I changed my mind and realized I had to go to Greece to see Roman stuff, so Im not really sure when I realized the leaning tower of Pisa was in Tuscany.
Pisa is the name of a small town in Tuscany, and its not much different to any other town except for the fact its tower is leaning. Most Italian towns have a duomo, accompanied by a baptismal room, and a tower, surrounded by a plaza in the city center, and Pisa would probably be off the mass-tourism radar if it wasn’t for its crooked tower.
If you walk around the tower, the degree to which it looks like its going to fall changes. There’s one angle you can look at it and it just looks really tall and looming, but actually its leaning right over you. From the angle where its most tipsy, hordes of tourist line up and put their hands up, to create the optical illusion that they’re holding the tower up. Im still not sure if I think this is totally ridiculous, childishly-funny, or a brilliant idea. Either way, I didn’t take such a photo of myself, so if it ever falls, I cant prove to my gullable grandkids I tried to stop it from tipping. But I can teach them where it is, and that its built in a Roman style, but not in Rome… or Greece.
A lot of Italian towns were once walled, but few remain totally enclosed. Lucca is completely blockaded within a red-stone fortress, and you have to enter it through one of a few secret passages – narrow, hidden paths that go through or over the wall, invisible to the eye but marked with touristy direction signs.
Once you get inside, the dense, stone jungle has no straight roads, and only few wide enough for cars to drive. I never figured out how the cars got in there, but anyway. I walked around the passageways, getting lost every third turn I made, but every time I got out into an open piazza, could orient myself by one of the tall church towers scattered around the city.
It was a quiet place, without busloads of flash-happy tour groups, and the shops weren’t tailored to sell all the same souvenirs. Instead, I passed Italian couples dining at Italian run restaurants, young locals jogging, little old ladies walking their dogs, teenage girls shopping, and old men discussing who-knows-what on the plaza benches.
In travel books, its recommended as a day trip for tourists to take to get away from the hustle bustle of Florence, and that’s certainly what it is. Although it won’t be if everyone starts going there, a typical dilemma that charming tourist destinations like Lucca face.
Siena is another fortress city, perched on a couple hill tops, but slightly more accessible than Lucca. Its also marketed as a day trip destination, since its quite small and not much more to do after seeing it for an afternoon.
Its strange how these “daytrip” destinations develop to host “day” tourists – a lot of shops, selling the exact same things, over-priced vendors to supply bottled water and slices of pizza, but there are very few hotels. People cycle in and out daily, taking all the food and gelato icecream they need to make it through the day of photo taking, and then complete quietude returns after 6 pm when everyones left and the whole city reverts back to being a quiet Italian town.
The activities are similar in all the towns: walk to the duomo, usually also the central plaza, check out more churches and museums housed in old buildings, sit at other piazzas, maybe have a cigarette, eat some pasta and wine or have a cappuccino on a terrace, and then you’ve been to Siena. Its strange to see how I just get into it, like its my daily life rhythm. Sometimes I even notice I’m just following the person in front of me, since I assume they have a tourist map showing them how to walk through the city to see what you have to see. But, once in a while I snap out of it and try to wander somewhere else, stop hiding behind my camera, and stick around until after the shops close, til I feel like Im the only outsider left in the city walls.