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Visiting Pisa and Lucca in Tuscany
12:55pm Saturday 3rd March 2012 in Leisure
P class="bold">Florence isn’t the only reason to visit Tuscany. MATT CLARK reports from two often overlooked gems.FOR many, Pisa has an airport that is handy for Florence and a tower leaning at an impossible angle. But stay a while to explore its medieval streets and you will be pleasantly surprised.
Hiring a horse and trap is one way to get around, but Shanks’s pony is by far the best. Pisa is a warren and only a leisurely stroll will reveal its hidden splendours. Take Piazza dei Cavalieri, tucked away off Via Santa Maria and a treasure trove of Italian architecture.
Highlights are the Palazzo dell ‘Orologio with its single handed clock and the elaborately decorated Palazzo dei Cavalieri, originally the headquarters of the Tuscan Knights of St Stephen.
Pisa’s main street is Corso Italia, a bustling mix of designer shops and bars leading to the covered market on the banks of the River Arno. Further along, Santa Maria della Spina is one of the city’s smallest churches with a uniquely gothic and Romanesque exterior in white marble.
Eventually you will discover the main attractions, standing on the Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), a green lawn at the north western corner of the city. Here, a great cathedral complex of four imposing white marble buildings was built 1,000 years ago to show the world how important the city was. It consists of the vast St Mary Duomo, a circular Baptistery – Italy’s largest – and the Camposanto, also known as the Holy Field, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.
The leaning tower dating from 1173 is the cathedral’s bell tower and synonymous with the city. It’s fair to say Pisa would attract few tourists if it still stood vertically, but leave the tower until last and you will agree that is a great shame.
Like the rest of the cathedral complex, it is a breathtaking masterpiece of Moorish, Gothic and Romanesque architecture.
The tower has always tilted because of poor sandy foundations at one side. For eight centuries engineers have scratched their heads searching for a solution, while fearing the tower might collapse completely.
The last attempt was completed ten years ago when a $25 million renovation programme solved the problem, for a couple of hundred years at least, by placing lead weights on the north side, and removing tonnes of soil from under the building with corkscrew drills.
No such worries in Lucca, one of Italy’s finest medieval hill towns and built on the strongest possible foundations – rock. Its city walls, the best preserved in Italy, are lined with avenues of plane, chestnut, and ilex trees, but Lucca is too often overlooked in favour of Florence.
The town is only 12 miles from Pisa and there is fine retail therapy to be found in the smart boutiques along Via Fillungo.
Traffic is banned from many of the streets, making Lucca a fine place to amble aimlessly along the city walls, before exploring the tiny piazzas, venturing through an enticing vaulted passage or simply heading for the nearest gelateria for a delicious spot of people watching. Try Pinguino in Piazza Napoleone, it’s one of Italy’s finest.
One place you must aim for though is Piazza dell’Anfiteatro on the site of the Roman Forum. Awesome at ground level, it is even more stunning when viewed from the bell-tower of Basilica di San Frediano or the 130ft Torre Guinigi, with its hanging garden and ancient oak tree on the roof, from where a bird’s-eye view reveals its true glory.
The elliptical Piazza is one of the best places in Italy to watch the world go by, rivalling even Siena’s Piazza del Campo. It’s home to some fabulous trattorias and make sure you find time to browse the little curiosity shop dedicated to Lucca’s favourite son, the composer Giacomo Puccini.
Don’t miss Lucca’s other big tourist attraction; the Duomo in Pisan style which contains fine sculptures in the Trenta Chapel and marble altar, by Jacopo della Quercia, a forerunner of Michelangelo.
San Michele in Foro, with its tall, narrow 13th century façade is equally worth a visit and the little piazza it overlooks is a true gem.
Somewhere, perhaps, to take time over a leisurely cappuccino and congratulate yourself for taking time to visit one of Italy’s most perfect and unspoiled hill towns.