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Pisa, Italy highlights

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Field of Miracles park

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo features beautiful examples of religious art created by Pisan artists over the centuries. The gallery is separated into nearly 20 rooms. Room 7 exhibits Giovanni Pisano’s dramatic Madonna del Colloquio, an important work for how Pisano effected the intense gazes exchanged between Madonna and Child. In room 11 is the Pisan Cross, a painting said to have whipped up the Pisan group on the First Crusade to invade Jerusalem. In room 15 you’ll find exquisite examples of intarsia, the art of inlaid wood. Pisan artists practiced this art form in the 15th and 16th centuries. Open daily, April–Sept 8am–7.40pm; Oct-March 9am–4.40pm. Admission €5.

The Museo delle Sinopie exhibits camposanto sinopias, the original drawings for frescoes made with earth-colored pigments. You’ll find the entrance to Sinopie on the south side of the Campo, through the only gap in the souvenir stalls. The sinopies are great plates of plaster, and this museum was made to preserve their fragile integrity. Locals say that to understand what’s on them, you have to be a bit of a scholar. I had to agree. Nonetheless, they are fabulous works of art when understood as “samples” for real thing. You can also climb up inside the medieval Torre di Santa Maria here to look down into the Camposanto. Open daily, April–Sept 8am–7.40pm; Oct-March 9am–4.40pm. Admission €5.

The Museo Nazionale di S. Matteo exhibits sculptures and painting from 12th century through the 15th century, including Simone Martini, Nino Pisano and Masaccio. Most of the major original artworks from Pisa’s churches are now gathered here, including a St Paul by a young Masaccio, a Crucifixion by Gozzoli whose atmosphere is more like a carnival than a slow execution. The oddest piece of all is Turino Vanni’s Crusifixion, clearly showing the Leaning Tower in the background. The sculpture collection has the famous (but little known outside Italy or art historian circles) Madonna del Latte, a work by Nino Pisano that shows Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus.

East Pisa sees few tourists, yet this section of town has arcaded streets, Romanesque churches, medieval squares, and a lively student population. Its monthly market brings a bazaar to the streets on either side of the Arno. Piazza dei Cavalieri opens unexpectedly from the narrow backstreets, the central civic square of medieval Pisa. The Palazzo dei Cavalieri curves along the with the plaza, and has busts of the Medici atop its high walls. The palazzo adjoins the church of Santo Stefano. Inside you can see original Turkish warship banners captured by the Knights of St Stephen. Opposite the church is the Palazzo dell’Orologio. In 1208 the military leader Ugolino della Gherardesca was starved to death (along with his sons and grandsons) the the palace tower for his alleged involvement with the Genoese enemy. This episode has been described in literature, most famously in Dante’s Inferno and Shelley’s Tower of Famine. Via Dini leads to Borgo Stretto, Pisa’s high-end shopping district set back from the arcades.

pisa city scapePisa Restaurants
The best value restaurants serving local favorites to locals are a few blocks south of the Leaning Tower, around Piazza Cavalieri and Piazza Dante. Pisa is close to the sea, and so fresh fish is always on the menus, including the Pisan dish baccala alla (dried cod).

La Grotta is a local favorite where you’ll see people shoehorned into the benches eating traditional Tuscan dishes. The setting is cave-like, and the motto “wine, bread, and company.” Open daily for dinner; closed for lunch and all day Sun. Via San Francesco 103. Phone 050 578 105.

Osteria dei Cavalieri serves seafood and fish Tuscan style. The meats and game dishes are equally well prepared. English speaking staff is friendly. Open Mon-Sat; closed Sat lunch & Sun. Via san Frediano 16. Phone 050 580 858.

For pizza, try Il Vecchio Dado on the Arno River. The atmosphere is fun, and there is so much more on the menu than its excellent pizza. Open daily; closed Wed & Thurs lunch. Lungarno Pacinotti 21. Phone 050 580 900.

Pisa Transportation
Pisa straddles the Arno River, just as Florence does 120km to the east. Buses from nearby hill towns and other Tuscan cities arrive at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The Leaning Tower is a 25 minute walk from here, or you can take CPT city bus #1 from outside the station.

Most tourists come to Pisa by train, the fastest transportation from larger, distant cities. Pisa Centrale station is 1km south of the Arno. The walk to the Leaning Tower is a picturesque introduction to Pisa. City bus #3 will also take you to the tower.

Aeroporto Galileo Galilei is 2km south of Centrale Station. Trains run hourly from the airport to Centrale Station (and on to Florence, 1.5 hrs away). CPT city bus #3 also runs from the airport. A taxi to the city center will cost around €6.

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