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By Rick Steves
Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa's 294 steps
As everyone knows, Pisa has the famous tilted tower you can climb, but an unspoiled Renaissance wall you can bike encircles the lesser-known Lucca. These two Tuscan towns, near Florence and each other, make for an easy day-trip from Florence. But if you have time for more than a touristy quickie, each offers great Italian city scenes -- offering visitors the chance to savor Pisa's rich architectural heritage, and bask in Lucca's genuine charm.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most iconic images in the world, but it's not the only sight in town. It leans near the town's other biggies -- the cathedral and baptistery. This creamy white threesome floats regally over the green-grass Field of Miracles. Imagine arriving in Pisa as a sailor in the 11th century -- the sea came to just outside the surrounding walls, the church was the biggest in the world, and spread out before you was an ensemble of gleaming white marble. Even choked with street-market stands probably then and certainly now, the square still lives up to its name: the Field of Miracles.
The 200-foot-tall bell tower is famous for its dramatic 15-foot lean. Soon after construction began in 1173, someone said, "Is it just me, or does that look crooked?" The builders carried on anyway, using every trick imaginable to stop the tilt. In 1990, the tower was deemed dangerous, and the city sealed it up and spent the next decade straightening it by about 12 inches. All that work has turned the clock back a few centuries -- to Galileo's time. Legend has it that the scientist, fascinated by gravity, dropped objects from the tower to time their falls.
Climbing to the top of the tower is an unforgettable experience offering great views and vertigo. Since only 30 people can ascend every 30 minutes, you reserve a time slot when you buy your ticket. For a small, worthwhile fee, you can book ahead at www.opapisa.it. Age restrictions apply: Only kids eight and older are allowed to clamber up the tower.
With its ornate facade glittering in the sun, Pisa's huge and richly decorated cathedral is artistically more important than the tower. Its pulpit, sculpted by Giovanni Pisano, was so intricate that Michelangelo traveled here to marvel at its realism. Next to the cathedral, the baptistery features acoustics so remarkable that echoes last long enough to let you sing three-part harmony -- solo.
For most visitors, the Pisan thrill ends here. But when I'm in Pisa, I escape the tourist hordes with a stroll through town. From its main bridge, you'll see long lines of elegant mansions recalling days of trading glory, reminiscent of Venice's Grand Canal.
Despite its ancient past, Pisa feels youthful. Nearly half of its 100,000 residents are students, keeping the city lively -- especially at night. Pisa's famous university is one of Europe's oldest. It was here that Galileo studied the solar system and Andrea Bocelli attended law school before embarking on his musical career. You'll see plenty of youthful fashions along Corso Italia, Pisa's main drag, where the kids are out making the scene. Some are also making out like thieves -- be on guard for young pickpockets, often dressed as tourists.
A church on Pisa's main shopping street sports some 16th-century graffiti. Odds are you'll probably spot some modern graffiti nearby. Students have been pushing their causes here -- or simply defacing things -- for five centuries. Near the train station, a mural covering the wall of a church vibrates with life. Painted in 1989 by New York graffiti artist Keith Haring (known for his white-on-black subway drawings), this colorful assembly of figures celebrates diversity, chaos, and the liveliness of our world.
Just a 30-minute bus ride from Pisa, the fortress city of Lucca is a favorite stop for many Italy connoisseurs. The home of composer Giacomo Puccini, Lucca has no single monumental sight. It's simply a uniquely human and well-preserved city, with a perfectly intact Renaissance wall. Residents are protective of their wall, which they've turned into a park and enjoy like a community roof garden. I like to circle the top on a rental bike. Within the wall, Romanesque churches seem to lurk around every corner, as do fun-loving piazzas filled with soccer-playing children. Locals tell me Lucca is like a cake with a cherry filling in the middle -- every slice is equally good.
Most visitors to this corner of Italy blitz the tipsy tower, snap some photos, and leave. But they're missing out. Straying from the tourist zone rewards you with two delightfully Renaissance cities pulsing with history and vitality -- both living proof that Florence has serious competition.
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© Rick Steves by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Vacation Travel - Tuscan Treats: Pisa and Lucca