On Sunday night we came back from a short break in Pisa, recharging our batteries before the final surge of campaigning for the London elections on 1st May.
It wasn’t exactly getting away from elections because Italians go to the polls on 13 April. Sipping a coffee in a cafe, we were handed election leaflets. Our hotel was the temporary base of a ‘Pisa First’ candidate. Strolling the streets we passed other campaign HQs, while official posters showed the parties that had made it to the final round; it’s a 16-horse race.
The Piazza del Duomo with the leaning tower, the Cathedral and the round Baptistery does take your breath away despite being such a familiar image. Even the crowds of street vendors and tourist stalls can’t spoil it, they just give a suitably medieval buzz. Every other tourist wants their photo taken ‘propping up’ the tower, so they are leaning, stretching and lunging away, making the grass in front of the Tower look like the warm-up venue for a bizarre sporting event.
The last time I visited Pisa, a decade ago, the Tower was supported by steel cables and had weights hanging on one side. Now it’s been stabilised, free of ugly cabling, and open to visitors again. The Tower started to lean even before it was completed, so the builders partly corrected the lean as they went, meaning the Tower is slightly banana-shaped. While you really feel the lean on the way up, the Tower is close to level when you reach the top.
As well as climbing the Tower we enjoyed some more obscure sites, including a visit to Pisa Calcio’s Serie B football ground, the Arena Garibaldi. Pisa’s ground is very close to the city centre, just outside the old walls, and surrounded by flats and villas. The residential streets around the grounds have 12 foot spiked gates at either end, ready to close for crowd control. It’s striking that we manage a Premiership stadium in Highbury without any such gates needed. The international language of football meant Richard ended up discussing the previous night’s Arsenal match with a Yorkshire Gooner met on top of the Leaning Tower, before in-depth analysis of Pisa & Fiorentina’s form with our hotel barman.
We also had a day out in Lucca, the birthplace of Pucchini, also the home (cheers Richard) of Sportiva Lucchese, and just 15 minutes from Pisa by train. Lucca is surrounded by 4km of walls which have been laid out as a park in the sky, with trees, benches, cafes and view points; we did a gentle circuit before lunch, along with dog walkers, cyclists, roller bladers all enjoying the spring sunshine and views over the town. We ate in the Piazza Napoleon. When Napoleon conquered Italy, he gave Lucca to his sister Elisa. She had a villa outside the walls, and according to one story, ended up being winched over them to safety when the plain flooded. Maybe the shared experience of floods is why Lucca’s British twin town is Abingdon.
Back in Pisa, we enjoyed some great meals out, especially at the Osteria dei Cavalieri and our favourite Osteria dei Santi, washed down with glasses of Montepulciano and Moretti. If we ate Italian all year round, we’d never have made it up the Tower….
The trip was supposed to be a stress-buster, so we were a bit alarmed when the cashpoint rejected Richard’s card on our first day there. He eventually got through to Lloyds TSB on the phone; just a fraud check, because of unusual activity. Unusual activity equals being in Italy? Yes, but don’t worry sir, now you’ve called, your card is cleared. Which is fine... except it’s not really fine to have to phone your bank from abroad when on holiday. And given how often Richard travels for work it wasn’t unusual activity either. Especially when I travel much less, and my card worked fine throughout.
The only other downside of the trip was the journey home. Just hours after we’d been sunning ourselves on our hotel’s roof terrace, our (carbon-offset) flight home was delayed six hours by snow at Gatwick. Yet another argument for holidaying by train in future!