ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: TENTH DAY
FLORENCE TO PISA AND CHIAVARI
SUNDAY 28 MARCH
There was more than a slight touch of scorn about the way Saro said this that put me on the defensive somewhat. There was an edge to both his tone and his deprecatory expression which suggested that there was something he wanted to get off his substantial Italian chest.
I felt a little wrong-footed. Until that very moment, I’d been happily sipping a smooth, but mysteriously strong, Italian coffee at a wholly innocent-looking street cafe overlooking the ‘Field of Miracles’ while Saro had been giving me a schoolboy-style potted history and running commentary of its sights. The Baptistry, the Duomo, the ancient cemetery and - of course - the Leaning Tower. I’d been full of admiration, awe and wonder, as anyone would be (and many millions have been before me) at my first experience of these legendary monuments.
‘You English! It’s so typical of you that you call it Pisa!’
‘Er...I call it Pisa because that’s what it’s called’.
I still had no idea why he had launched what was obviously building up into a salvo of unfriendly fire against me and my apparently hapless compatriots. After all, I concluded, it wasn’t my fault if Pisa had another name of which I was unaware.
‘No, you don’t understand’, he said (and he was absolutely correct about that).
‘So why don’t you explain?’
As soon as I’d said this, I regretted it. I’d only met Saro a matter of minutes ago, but already I knew that he was the kind of fellow who spoke his mind. And he spoke it in almost perfect English too, thus gaining a double advantage over me.
‘The name of this city only has four letters’, he said. ‘P, I, S and A.’
I couldn’t disagree with him there, and bravely said so.
‘And you English mispronounce three of them. Every time you say 'Pisa', you are 75% wrong.’
‘What’s wrong with calling it Pisa?’ I asked. Naturally, I was pronouncing it peezuh.
‘The ‘ee’ sound is too long,’ he said. ‘It’s not like the ee in ‘cheese’; it’s like the ee in ‘peek’’.
I practised this.
‘The ‘s’ is an ‘s’ and not a ‘z’’. I practised this too.
‘And make the ‘a’ a good Italian ‘a’, not a wet English ‘uh’’.
Suddenly, the You English way of pronouncing Pisa really did sound flaccid. Peezuh. Stiffen it by making it rhyme with Lisa (an Italian name) and you’re just about there.
So now you know. For centuries, You Italians have been silently seething because You English have been slovenly about the name of the city I was in that Sunday morning.
So I never want to hear peezuh again. We mustn’t upset You Italians, after all.
To be honest, most of Pisa - including the city centre - is a bit ordinary, like a kind of Italian Wolverhampton. If it wasn’t for the Field of Miracles, no-one at all would visit Pisa. That, however, is a very big if it wasn’t, because the Field of Miracles hosts what is arguably Italy’s Greatest Hit - the Leaning Tower.
It’s truly an astonishing structure, both aesthetically and historically. It’s 191ft high, weighs 16,200 ‘short tons’ (what are ‘short tons’?), has 296 steps to the top and leans a sublime, if not totally ridiculous, 13ft from the vertical.
Here is my annotated version of what Wikipedia says about it...
Construction of the tower occurred in three stages across 177 years. Work on the first floor of the white marble campanile began on August 8, 1173 (*before Durham Cathedral was finished) during a period of military success and prosperity. (*At the time, Pisa was actually a coastal city with one of Europe’s busiest ports; the sea is now about 6 miles away.)
This first floor is a blind arcade articulated by engaged columns with classical Corinthian capitals. (*I’m not going to annotate that bit because I don’t really understand it myself.)
The tower began to sink after construction had progressed to the third floor in 1178. This was due to a mere three-metre foundation, set in weak, unstable subsoil, a design that was flawed from the beginning. (*As this was only five years after construction began, I can’t help wondering if the architect/mason responsible for such ludicrously shallow foundations was still around; and, if he was, how long for?)
Construction was subsequently halted for almost a century. This allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have toppled.
In 1198 clocks were temporarily installed on the third floor of the unfinished construction. (*That’s because the Tower wasn’t intended as pure ornamentation; it’s a campanile, or bell-tower. I guess it must have seemed like a good idea to install some kind of time-keeping device in it to justify its continuing, if unstable, existence.)
In 1272 construction resumed. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. Because of this, the tower is actually curved. (*I didn’t know that. Did you?) Construction was halted again in 1284.
The seventh floor was completed in 1319. The bell-chamber was finally added in 1372. (*So the Tower has been a Leaning Tower for the best part of 700 years. I have to admit that, when Saro told me this, my respect for it increased dramatically. The anonymous buffoon who miscalculated the foundations did, it’s true, get it all wrong - but he got it gloriously all wrong.)
There are seven bells, one for each note of the musical major scale. (*I didn’t know that, either.) The largest one was installed in 1655.
After a phase (1990–2001) of structural strengthening, the tower is currently undergoing gradual surface restoration, in order to repair visual damage, mostly corrosion and blackening. These are particularly pronounced due to the tower's age and its exposure to wind and rain.
There was no wind or rain that Sunday morning, though, and - once Saro had calmed down - I was able to relax and watch my fellow-tourists go about their business in the gentle Italian Spring sunshine, for such it was.
When people of a certain age listen to Rossini’s William Tell overture - a piece of superbly-crafted, intricately-orchestrated and dramatic classical music - they can’t help thinking of the Lone Ranger. They just can't help themselves.
The Field of Miracles is like that. You sit at your cafe table knowing that you should be admiring the bulbous majesty of the Baptistry and the soaring lines and intricate design of the Duomo. But instead, you just can’t take your eyes off the wretched hordes of people taking those inevitable ‘forced perspective’ shots of the Leaning Tower - the ones where somebody adopts a pose to make it look as if they’re holding it up, or pushing it over.
The urge to take such a photo seems to be irresistible and ensnares tourists of every hue, including a particularly boisterous group of Italian pensioners (although Saro insisted, rather defensively, that they were Swiss). Eventually, I weakened and, realising that it was all good, clean, harmless fun, I offered a few of them the chance to be in their own photographs by taking their pictures myself.
If you don’t get the hands in exactly the right position, you naturally make the photographee look daft; the picture is a complete failure. I thoroughly enjoyed myself trying to position Swiss/Italian pensioners so that the desired effect was achieved. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask for copies. The urge to laugh out loud is difficult to resist even now.
Interestingly, as my Grand Tour progressed, my offers to take photographs for people, and their reactions to my offers, became a kind of subtle measure of the place I happened to be in. You’ve already met Steffa and Gyorg (amongst several others) in the Grand Place in Brussels. In Cologne, it was a group of students who were delighted to have got good results in their exams; I invited them to jump up in the air (as students have to do for British newspapers) and the resulting picture was a joy. Again, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t ask them to forward me a copy.
The only place on my entire Grand Tour where all my offers to take photographs for people were turned down was Venice. At first, I thought this may have been because I had the look of an Anglo-Saxon white-slaver or drug dealer about me that day. On reflection, though, I think the reason lay in the city itself. You don’t have to be in Venice for very long to realise that your chances of being fleeced, scammed, or even robbed, are quite high - or seem to be.
Sadly, I too would have hesitated before handing my camera over to a total stranger in St Mark's Square, no matter how kindly the offer was made.
When I’d finished my duties as Pisa’s photographer-in-waiting, and had wandered round the incredible structures on the Field of Miracles, Saro took me by surprise by inviting me back to his home town ‘to see what a real working Italian town’ was like. I’m not vain enough to imagine that he had any other motive.
We had a final cup of coffee so that I could take one last look at what is, without any doubt at all, one of the world’s most iconic architectural sites. I’ll probably be unable to visit Pisa again and my life will be a little poorer for it.
The ‘real, working Italian town’ that Saro wanted to take me to was Chiavari. What I hadn’t realised was that it was all of 70 miles away, up the coast in Liguria, not far from Genoa. Saro (whom I’d arranged to meet in Pisa via a gay travellers’ website) had driven all the way down from Chiavari to be my host for the day. Who was I to turn down such a gracefully offered invitation?
Besides - and despite his playful obsession about the pronunciation of Pisa - I liked him very much. He had a wide, sunny and sexy smile, a glorious beard and dark, flashing eyes…
On the long car-journey back to Chiavari, through the lush coastal countryside of northern Tuscany and Liguria, I found myself looking at him and smiling (as you do). He looked like the kind of rough-hewn, hairy hero - with an earthy name like Tom or Sam - who turns up in a Mills and Boon novel to save the heroine from the clutches of a slightly-built, clean-shaven, devious cad called Charles or even Peregrine. Or so I’m led to believe.
For all his description of Chiavari as ‘ordinary‘ and ‘nothing special’, it was a delightful little town. It clung precariously to a narrow coastal strip of southern Liguria on what is known by geologists as a ‘raised beach’; in distant geological time, the land tipped backwards from the sea and left a former beach as dry land. So tiny Chiavari has its back to the cliffs and its face to the sea.
It’s streets were lined with ancient arcades; at its centre lay a mediaeval fortress-prison and the large parish church. Building land was so scarce that the town park had to be laid out up the side of the cliffs behind the main square. It’s the only vertical public park I’ve ever seen.
There was a wonderful country market in one of the narrow lanes leading off from the town square; it stayed open until late and I still have a very strong sense of its heady aromas and tastes. The town made no concessions to tourists at all, on the very sound basis that it doesn’t get very many. Since I had spent the last few days in places which tend to do little else - Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa - this made an invigorating and eye-opening change. It was exactly the ‘comma’ that my Grand Tour needed. It was like coming up for air.
That evening, we ate at one of Chiavari’s trattoria - the little local cafes that pop up everywhere along the streets of every Italian town. It was small, popular and packed to the rafters. Everyone had their favourites on the menu, the tables were packed tightly together, the service was friendly and brisk and the talk all around us was happy, loud and incessant. I loved every single second of it, even though I can’t remember anything about what I had to eat.
Saro’s little house stood on the bank of the river, which ran past his front garden. As we sat on the garden wall sharing a late-night bottle of wine, I looked out over the river to the twinkling lights and buildings just a few feet away on the other side.
‘Chiavari is such a nice place, Saro. Thankyou for bringing me here.’
‘That’s not Chiavari over there’, he said. ‘That’s Lavagna. It’s awful’
Not all those who wander are lost….
Post comments on this blog or email me: email@example.com