The Leaning Tower of Pisa seems like an obvious topic for a travel and culture blog about Italy, but if I’m being honest I have to admit that it had never been on my “Have-To” list. I didn’t understand why so many people went out of their way just to see it (Pisa doesn’t have much else that would draw a tourist). I mean, it’s an ill-constructed tower. It leans. If it were built today it would just be demolished and rebuilt properly. What’s the big deal?
When some friends from the States asked me to meet them in Lucca for a long weekend, though, I decided I couldn’t really avoid it any longer. Pisa is just a short, 30-minute train ride from Lucca and I was going to have an entire afternoon to myself before they got there; why not go and check out what all the hype is about? At least then I could write a scathing article about how touristy and ridiculous it is. So I went.
First tip: If you’re taking a Regional train, get off at San Rossore, not Pisa Centrale. I had heard that the Tower was right by the train station but found myself walking all the way through the city, over a bridge, and to the other end of the city before finding it. Now, supposedly Pisa Centrale is 1.5 km away from Piazza dei Miracoli, the “Square of Miracles”, where the Tower and other religious buildings are located, but it felt a lot longer. It was, though, much more of an interesting walk than the walk to San Rossore on my way back to Lucca. Half a dozen to one, six to the other…
Second tip: Before leaving Milan I had booked a time to climb the Tower and I’d definitely recommend doing so, particularly if you’re going in the summer months. In May, there were still a few spots open when I went into the tourist office, but for much later in the day (and who wants to spend the day just hanging around, waiting?). They only allow small groups inside the Tower at a time and only for a short period of time – they actually come up to the top and ask everyone to leave after that time is up. In TWO languages.
Third tip: Before lining up for your tour, you have to go to the ticket office and store all bags and loose items. You’re only allowed to bring a camera or phone with you to take pictures. The lockers are free and there’s an attendant there to help you retrieve things, if needed. I didn’t know this beforehand so, after being turned away at the entrance, had to run over to the ticket office to store my things. I quickly made it back to the Tower, though, and entered through the dark, wooden doors set into one side.
A guide gives a short intro before you go up (which I had, unfortunately missed), but there’s also a fact sheet posted to the wall that tells you the Tower’s stats:
“58.6 meters high from the bottom of the foundation 55 meters above ground
Weight:” (in case this is important to you?) “14,453 tons
Center of gravity: 22.6 meters above the foundation plane”
After adjustments were recently made to the foundation, the slope was reduced by 5.5 degrees to 5 degrees and the overhang was reduced by about 46 cm.
OK, but what is it? I, honestly, didn’t even know why the Tower was built. Turns out, it is just the bell tower for the nearby Cathedral. The architect who designed it (whose name is lost… perhaps fortuitous for the architect’s reputation?) meant it to draw tourists to the town and its Cathedral. He couldn’t have foretold how much it would do so – though more for his folly than for its beauty, as he had hoped.
Building began on August 9, 1173. The foundation was laid 3 feet deep, which according to the mysterious architect’s calculations, should have been more than stable enough to support the weight of the Tower. What he didn’t figure in, however, was that clay made up a part of the soil underneath. The presence of clay made the ground unstable and, when the third floor was completed in 1178, a slight lean could already be seen as the weight of the Tower shifted the clay under it.
Construction paused for almost 100 years as the citizens were distracted by various wars. Then, in 1272, Giovanni di Simone added four more flours to the Tower and had the genius idea to compensate for the lean by adding more inches in height to the side that was leaning, hoping to make it even at the top. The extra weight from those inches, of course, made the Tower lean even more! The bell chamber at the top was finally added in 1372 and the Tower was left alone, still leaning, until the 19th century.
In 1838, Alessandro Della Gherardesca, an established architect, built a pathway near the bottom to show off the intricately crafted base, thus decreasing the already low-support offered by the ground below and causing the Tower to begin leaning more!
There have been many ideas and attempts to correct the leaning of the Tower over the centuries (though Pisa didn’t want to correct the lean too much; just enough so it was safe for tourists to climb). It wasn’t until 1990, though, when the Tower was closed for safety reasons, that John Burland, a professor of soil mechanics, came up with the plan to remove soil from the north (opposite) side of the Tower, thus evening out the base and reducing the lean. After having the work completed, the Tower was reopened to the public in 2001.
OK, so, history lesson over, the only way to go is up! I had an excited tingle in my stomach that I hadn’t expected to feel. The stairs, of course, lean just as the Tower does, giving you a strange feeling of disorientation as you make your way up the narrow, curved, stone staircase. Soon, though, you emerge into daylight on top of the tower. The bell chamber at the top is a continuation of the outer wall with arches built into it to feature the bells, both large and small, all the way around the edge. Above you, the flag of Pisa flies high, the bright red and white contrasting brilliantly with the clear blue of the sky. And, of course, I can’t discount the views of the surrounding countryside – absolutely lovely!
I’m really, really glad to have climbed the Tower of Pisa. It may be the most purely touristy thing you can do in Italy, but it was also quite incredible to have an experience with one of Italy’s most iconic buildings – cheesy or not.
Jessica is a travel enthusiast and entertainment executive living in Los Angeles. Her independent travels through Italy have inspired her travel blog, OneDayInItaly.com