Travel Writing: 24 Hours in Pisa

Pisa was my final destination of a 9-day-long trip; I wouldn’t say that it was “last but not least,” because it was tacked onto the trip solely as the cheapest route home to the UK. I split from my travel companions in Florence and took a bus to Pisa, where I stayed for 24 hours.

I had been nursing a sprained foot for my entire trip through Italy: it came as a relief that Pisa is actually a tiny city considering how much fame it’s garnered. Consequently, my memory of Pisa is uniquely vivid. The mixture of pain in my foot and thrill of being alone had heightened the experience of everything around me.

The sun illuminated the narrow cobbled streets in a contrast of bright pastel walls and angular shadows. Crowds dominated by tourists bustled through the main streets, transforming a small setting into one that felt twice its size. But sliding down any side street led to another city entirely. Each time that I chose an alley to explore, I took an involuntary breath of relief in the shade and newfound quiet.

I came upon a small produce shop roughly the size of an American SUV. A frail woman with long grey hair streaked with black looked up in surprise at my arrival.

I selected one apple to eat as I walked. But when I moved to pay, I realized that she didn’t speak a lick of English. I was instantly ashamed for being so spoiled. I had been prancing arrogantly through Spain and Italy for over a week with hardly a moment’s trouble with communication. I wracked my brain for go-to hand gestures meaning “how much?” and finally managed to exchange roughly the right amount of money from a frazzled Italian woman.

One can find Pisa’s leaning tower on everything from postage stamps to coffee cups; board games to cocktail napkins around the world. Someone has deemed this structure to be culturally important, but Pisa holds its own truth- it’s just a tower with detrimental architectural imperfections. There are hardly any acknowledgements of its existence throughout the city.

Up close, the structure is reminiscent of an ornate ice-cream cake left out a little too long before the festivities begin. To stand near the bottom is disorienting and powerful. I was struck by the battle between force and solid; its unwilling resignation to gravity was magnetic.

I lost track of time walking among the tourists and gazing at the single structure that they were all there for. As I laughed at the dozens of tourists throwing dignity to the wind when confronted with the once in a lifetime moment to get a shot of themselves “holding up the tower,” I couldn’t help but feel the need to fill the bucket list item myself. I broke my personal rule and stopped to explain to a cheerful-looking family that I was traveling alone and needed that one shot before I left. I had made the wrong choice in confidants, because the man’s skill with an iPhone camera was lacking to the point that he barely managed to capture the tower at all. His wife came close to succeeding, but the angle was still all wrong. Nevertheless, the failed photo seemed perfectly suited for how unconventional my Pisa experience had been.

Listed on my map was the birthplace of the great Galileo Galilei. It took me quite a lot of walking down winding streets and misreading sign after sparsely-placed sign until I found the right street corner. To my surprise, the street was deserted, apart from a few enjoying a late lunch at an adjacent cafe.

I entered the building expecting some sort of fanfare for the renowned scientist, but I was instead faced with a dark, open hallway that seemed to have been converted into a modern office space. Glass walls ran along the left side and revealed neatly arranged desks for what could have been a real estate or consulting firm. I wandered farther down the hall and peeked into another more cluttered office, but saw movement and decided to retreat.

The only tribute to Galileo Galilei was a long white wall filled with a string of plaques and posters. In English and Italian, they described the physicist’s life which began when he was born in 1524. It dawned on me only afterwards how monumental it was to stand in the birthplace of such a revolutionary mind.

It was around 4:00pm and my foot was now screaming. It occurred to me that one thing I hadn’t experienced on this trip was a phenomenal pasta dish.

I walked the streets with a mission this time. Each storefront was a candidate for what had become the meal of my dreams. I scanned the hand-written signs that advertised pizzas and appetizer-sized dishes. A few times, I reached to open the door of a promising restaurant, only to find it locked tight. My American entitlement to immediate gratification, and any sized meals at any hour of the day, was suddenly rearing its ugly head. Finally my foot could take it no longer. I chose one of the first cafes I could see.

The storefront was short, but the cafe extended far into the building. A bar to my right ran along the entire wall, with three good-looking men dressed sharply in all-black. I did not see a hostess, so I walked up to a tall blonde woman behind the bar who seemed to be taking orders. She told me to seat myself, and that someone would be over to take my order. I obediently found a seat in the back room, which seemed quiet and almost altogether deserted. This was precisely what I wanted; some quiet isolation.

I began to gravely regret my seating choice as the minutes passed. There was no waiter or waitress in sight. More minutes passed and I resolved that I should double check to see if the bartender had forgotten about me.

The blonde waitress was gone, so I approached two of the well-dressed male waiters. I had to grab their attention from the phones in their hands, and I was met with expressions of surprised that I was daring to even speak to them.

I continued with my polite and semi-apologetic request for a server, but they remained disgruntled that I was still standing at the counter in front of them.

I received a half-hearted “Yes, someone will be over.” But something told me that I was not about to be served. Did they resent me for my American accent? Or was I just impatient for not being able to wait 25 minutes for a server? I was humiliated, and suddenly the pasta dish of my dreams was magnificently less important to me.

I boarded my flight the next day with residual feelings of frustration over how Pisa seemed to reject me from its streets. But when I remembered how long I had been in the city, it seemed like I had lived a lifetime in just 24 hours; not in a turmoil of frustration, but in a glowing rush of people and new moments around each uncharted corner.

The cohabitation of bustling travellers and shoppers with peaceful patience created a unique experience that banished the pain in my foot. Pisa was astonishingly youthful in population while still remaining steadfast in tradition.

[Michelle Rosinski –@its_michelle29]

Want more from Michelle? Check out her website here.

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