Wheel Adventures: Tower of Pisa attracts hordes of visitors ... and predators

David Sovka

Last in a series about cycling in Tuscany.

Rolling along the blessedly flat plain between Lucca and Pisa, under bright blue skies and with a gentle breeze at our backs, I have time to ponder some of life’s big questions, like what’s for lunch?

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Also, exactly what kind of black magic or, possibly, mathematics, is involved in keeping that tall tower on the horizon from tipping over? We’re at least five kilometres from Pisa, but we can clearly make out the iconic building with the significant tilt. From this first look, I would go so far as to call it a “leaning tower.” The closer we get, the more obvious — and dangerous-looking — is the lean. Seriously, what is keeping that thing up?

Lean into it

To answer that question, we have to first ask why it’s leaning at all. Back in 1160, Pisa had more than 10,000 towers (if you define “tower” as more than several dozen blocks piled on top of each other). Interestingly, none of those towers included a campanile, or bell tower (if you define “interestingly” as not at all interesting). Anyway, the lack of a bell tower was a problem until 1172, when local bell-tower enthusiast Berta di Bernardo died and left 60 pieces of silver to the city for the construction of a campanile.

Work began on the bell tower in 1173, led by Bonanno Pisano, a name I did not make up but wish I had. Signore Pisano was a very good sculptor, but a very bad geotechnical engineer. He did not know that beneath Piazza dei Miracoli’s lawns lay a 40-metre-deep mix of sand and clay, which is about as suitable a substrate for 56-metre-high marble buildings as banana-cream pudding.

After five years of construction, when the tower was just three storeys high, it had already started to tilt. So, in the spirit of all good municipal projects, work was put off for another 100 years.

When work resumed in 1272, the tilt was compensated for by building upward with a slight curve. The tower was eventually completed another 100 years later, in 1372. Somehow, the tower never got around to falling over — seven bells inside the tower, each sounding a different musical note, were rung from the ground by a team of 14 probably deaf men from 1370 until 1950.

Every year it leaned a little more, and by the 19th century, it was generally believed that the tower was deliberately built to lean.

In 1990, the tower was closed to the public while 1,000 tonnes of lead ingots were placed on the north side to counteract the building’s lean, and giant steel bands were wrapped around the second storey to hold it together. It didn’t work.

In 1995, the tower slipped 2.5 millimetres, prompting the insertion of more steel braces and cables while engineers removed 70 tonnes of earth from the high side of the foundations. Happily, this did work. In fact, it might have worked too well.

Not only is the tower stable, it is correcting itself toward the vertical. The latest measurements suggest that the tower’s iconic 43.8-centimetre lean might one day decrease to zero. Warning: you only have until the year 2300 before this happens.

Climbing the tower is a must-do, not just for the spectacular view of the Romanesque cityscape, but also to learn new appreciation for how good your body is at sensing when all is not plumb with the world. Climbing the well-worn 251 steps to the top floor provides a bizarre sensation of both falling forward and climbing backward as you circumnavigate the inside of the tower. The 3.9 degrees of tilt may not sound like much, but it’s very obvious to your toes.

The Leaning Tower is not the only beautiful building to explore in Pisa — or even the only one within the grounds of the Piazza dei Miracoli, which also contains the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, a striking 11th-century church and baptistry, and the Camposanto, said to contain soil from Calvary taken during the Crusades.

Unsurprisingly, all those famous buildings bring in the tourists, more than one million of them every year to a city of just 89,000. Such an overabundance of prey, in turn, brings in the predators, which means the usual cadre of pickpockets, North African cheap-crap-from-China merchants, and overpriced restaurants.

A day spent avoiding fistfights with all of the annoying above left me exhausted and a little glad that our cycle trip across Tuscany was officially over.

Of course, saying goodbye to the bikes and our cycle group doesn’t mean this is the end to overindulging in pasta and Chianti. We have one more stop to make before leaving Italy …

The Five Steep Lands

The Cinque Terre (Italian for “five lands”) is a string of centuries-old villages on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Cleveland, Ohio. Wait, that’s a typo, it should read Monterosso al Mare.

The most difficult thing about getting to the Cinque Terre is admitting to your wife that you are completely turned around, and have no idea where the Pisa train station is. Once this wee difficulty is sorted out (“I am almost nearly 100 per cent certain it’s over there, or possibly somewhere else. Yes, dear, yes of course, dear. By all means lead on if you think you know better”), it requires just two easy train rides, the latter of which takes eight minutes and drops you off at the bottom of the first village, stunning Riomaggiore.

When I say bottom of the first village, I refer to the mildly unpleasant fact — from the perspective of my knees — that our Airbnb is located at the top of the first village, at an elevation roughly equivalent to the base camp at Mount Everest.

This isn’t just a Riomaggiore thing; all five villages are tucked into the steep cliffs above the Mediterranean. It accounts for the stunning views, both from the bottom looking upward to the colourful homes and businesses stacked one on top of the other with vineyards and olive groves in the background; and from the top looking downward to the deep blue sea. Another plus of the steep main street (there is only one) and the myriad steep stairs and pathways, is that the farther you go up, the fewer tourists there are.

There are a lot of tourists here, naturally. The Cinque Terre is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for the rugged landscape that draws hikers and sightseers from as far away as the Andromeda Galaxy.

However, it’s not actually very touristy. In fact, one of the many things I like about this place is the lack of predators looking to sell junk to the punters. This is the opposite of Pisa and Rome — it feels more like an outpost on the edge of the world, rather than the hub of an empire.

For example, there are no SPQR symbols on statues and manhole covers (also, there are no statues or manholes to cover), which are found all over the city of Rome. SPQR stands for the Latin Senatus Populusque Romanus, which means: “The senate and the people of Rome welcome your tourist dollars.”

Each of the five villages is connected by railway, water taxi and a network of hiking trails, so it’s easy to get from one to another.

Each village is unique, with its own restaurants and shops and overall atmosphere, despite the fact that they are only separated by a few kilometres. When you visit, just choose one village as your base — you can’t pick wrongly — and day-trip to the others.

We spend three days exploring the Cinque Terre, which was not nearly enough for some parts of my body, and way too much for others. Leaving this quiet, beautiful part of the world is as easy as arriving — just two train rides and we are back in in the hustle and bustle of Rome.

Ciao Italia!

Only it isn’t that easy, not really. Leaving Italy proves to be oddly disquieting. On the eve of our departure, I can’t help but wonder what just happened. Did we really spend two weeks cycling the length and breadth of Tuscany with those crazy people from all over the world?

It seems as though I have been living in a dream, as do all my adventures. Sitting alone on a whitewashed bench under a fig tree, I ponder how travel demands such good questions about the way we work and live and eat and sleep and fight and love back home.

A few bittersweet lines in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s sublime poem Ulysses always come to mind when I am about to leave an adventure overseas for home:

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

This isn’t the windy plains of Troy, nor am I honour’d for battle here, but I do well know that I am a part of all that I have met, for ever and forever when I move.

Ciao Italy.

IF YOU GO

• Buy Pisa tickets ahead of time: opapisa.it/en/

• Everything Cinque Terre: parconazionale5terre.it/Eindex.php

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