The Leaning Tower of Pisa
So is a title even necessary for this post? Or did you miss it peeking out from behind the cathedral? The Leaning Tower of Pisa is certainly one of the most recognized monuments on the planet. It’s the perfect place to start our trip to Tuscany and Umbria. What? Too typical, too beaten-track you say?
Travelers with a major ‘tude might write the tower off as the ultimate travel cliché. It’s not. The famous tower and the stunning cathedral complex including its monumental baptistry are serious traveler eye-candy. If you need a more highbrow motivation, it’s the perfect place to study the very unique Pisan take on Romanesque architecture and search for hints of early Gothic. And, of course, there’s the whole leaning thing.
Conspiracy theorists specializing in the Middle Ages (who knew they existed?) have suggested that the tower was intentionally constructed to lean to give Pisa its own special “slant.” That seems highly unlikely considering the high costs of the materials used and the risk of having the tower collapse. Realists and those pesky historical records provide a more mundane explanation that the soil started to shift while the third floor was being built. Oops. By the time the tower was completed in 1319, it was already leaning about one degree. It just got worse from there.
The first time I visited in 1992, visitors were not allowed to climb the leaning tower because it was leaning a bit TOO much. Engineers were struggling to stabilize the tower and develop a long-term plan to prevent the tower from falling. It took more than a decade and several attempts before the tower was finally secured and reopened to the public in 2001. Yay!
Climbing the tower is a rather unique experience. First of all, you’re climbing a circular staircase in an inclined building. As if that weren’t enough, centuries of feet awkwardly making their way up the tower have worn away the stairs in an uneven way making the climb even more cumbersome. But it’s definitely worth what feels like a drunken climb for the views over the cathedral, the Pisa city walls, and the Tuscan countryside beyond.
Even if you aren’t interested in the tower, the interior of the cathedral alone is worth the trip to Pisa. It’s a visual explosion with bands of white and dark green marble, an opulently gilded ceiling, walls lined with massive paintings, Byzantine-influenced mosaics by Cimabue, and a pulpit by Giovanni Pisano (who did much of the sculpture on the facade of the Sienna Cathedral).
While the entire complex is unquestionably beautiful, there is some debate about the high cost of visiting the tower as well as the other attractions. There’s a dizzying array of pricing options including different combinations of the tower, the cathedral, the baptistry, the cemetery, and the museum. The tower alone is a whopping 15 Euros.
While I generally hate ever-increasing entry fees and the over-commercialization of the world’s cultural heritage, I’m going to keep my mouth shut on this one. Clearly, tickets are priced to reduce the number of people climbing the tower. Beyond that, stabilizing the tower and saving it for future generations was quite an accomplishment and ongoing work will be necessary. At least this high entry fee is actually helping to accomplish something.