in pisa: the quirk no one could correct ((not so) alone in italia, day four)

“Pisa is shit.”

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This is how the Italian at the hostel’s front desk responds when I tell him where I went yesterday.

I blink. “Oh. Um, why?”

He tells me it’s a nothing city. Nothing to do; a village on the map because of a big tower, not worth going out of your way.

I appreciate the honesty of Damiano’s opinion. Stuffy hotel concierge he is not. And I can see what he means. Pisa is quite small, lost somewhere after miles and miles of highway. It’s not a place to build your trip around, but a worthy stop on the way somewhere else.

And I wouldn’t call it shit.

Yesterday featured gray, gloomy skies. I left the hostel and met Victor in the car. We had no plan.

J’ai une chose à te proposer, he said.

“I have something to propose to you.” (French syntax thrills me still).

“Would you like to go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” He had the route marked on Maps. “It could be originale. We’re actually really close.”

Delighted, of course I said pourquoi pas. Our proximity to Pisa was not something I had considered. The location, within Italy, of the city that houses the “world’s most famous tower” (their distinction), had never crossed my mind, truth be told. It could have been on the other side of the country for all I knew.

But here we were, just an hour and a half away.

After a lot of highway, we park in Pisa and immediately buy an umbrella from a guy hawking them in the lot. I’m already shivering, dressed for Cinque Terre sun. My dress, so nice for the beach, now looks like optimism or stubborn ignorance. Vabbè.

The streets remind me of streets in Florence, all mustard yellows, dark greens and browns, rows of windows with neat shutters. I wonder if these colors are a regional thing, or just an Italian thing. I haven’t seen enough Italy yet to know.

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We walk down a long shopping street to the river, crossing occasional proud churches, looming reminders of the past. My favorite is a paradox of lacy white marble.

We find a quirky gift shop–salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Vespas–and Victor buys me a mug with a Pisa tower as the handle. I can’t remember the last time I got a souvenir so unabashedly obvious, so I HEART NEW YORK. This mug is anything but demure. Its unjaded tourism appeals to me.

img_5146 We eat at a place named for Danté, outside near a heat lamp. We have Campari spritzes (way too bitter for this American), Tuscan cheese and jam on a bed of super-peppery arugula, and finally, pizzas that we can barely finish.

Then (it feels late but isn’t, so gray) we hunt down the tower. It hides pretty well for such a big structure. You can’t see it from everywhere in town, as we had lazily imagined.

Around a corner, there’s a peek. Then there it is, the tall clumsy structure that put Pisa on the map.

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Speckled with cold rain, we take absolutely no time to learn about the history or climb the steps to the top in the bitter wind.

“Wow, it’s pretty,” and “it really does lean” are some of my scintillating observations.

Not every trip has to be educational.

Victor and I amuse ourselves by watching hordes of people trying to ‘hold up the tower’ in what is now perhaps the most unoriginal travel photo op in the world.

Not everyone is a natural. An American woman sighs and snaps, “Jim! Move to the left! No!”

Finally he gets it right, arms craned towards the sky, squinting from the effort. “Oooh,” the woman crows. “That’s good.”

I snicker, but then Victor makes me recreate this photo. It’s as lame as I expected, my hands far from “touching” the tower.

“Well,” Victor says. “It looks like it’s falling and you’re ready to catch it.”

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acs_0760-1At home, I learn that the word “Pisa” comes from the Greek for “marshy land.” 12th-century architects apparently disregarded the area’s mushy subsoil while constructing this tall, heavy belltower meant to crown the “Field of Miracles,” where the city would display the treasures freshly stolen from Sicily.

In a case of pride before folly, one side of the tower began to sink during construction of the second story. It was too late to go back, so the builders continued with some trepidation. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the tower kept its stubborn lean, and baffled builders halted work for close to a century.

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I learn too that Mussolini hated Pisa’s leaning tower, considering it, in no uncertain terms, a disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. His plan to fix the tower backfired, as the grout and mortar introduced to straighten out the lean only caused the structure to sink more heavily into the ground–its awkward angle even more pronounced.

Learning this makes me appreciate the structure even more. Already I admired its stacks of columns, graceful and impractical as a wedding cake. Now there’s an emotional appeal. Sweet little underdog with a quirk no one could correct. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Source: Walks of Italy

rainy colors: a weekend in Strasbourg

Last weekend I traveled to Strasbourg alone. I am head-over-heels for this Alsatian city: its bright buildings that remind me of a child’s drawings, its lovely street art, its warm, filling comfort food, cobbled streets, and abundance of bicycles.img_7721

I got in around four p.m. and had time to drop off my things and walk through the storybook scene that is Strasbourg’s riverbanks before the sun went down. It was entirely freeing to stroll in the sun with no bags in hand; to compress after a stressful day of travel.  img_7763

From Montluçon I had taken a train to Bourges, then another to Paris Est. From there I took the metro to Paris Austerlitz, then took the TGV to Strasbourg. It wouldn’t have been bad at all (I had snacks, water, a good book, and leftover metro tickets), except that I almost missed my first train. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that as I realized my train, the one I had to take to catch the other two that I had already paid for, was about to leave and that I was, as they say, on the wrong side of the tracks. I waved to the conductor from fifty feet away, desperate and unashamed, and then I flew down the concrete steps at a speed unprecedented by my heeled ankle boots and suitcase. I came to a fork in the road and looked up one direction hopelessly, knowing if I chose wrong I was out of luck. Luckily I saw a train attendent’s face peering down from the top of the stairs. C’est bien par là, mademoiselle ! I raced up the steps and into the train and sat huffing for all of thirty seconds before the doors closed and we sped away quietly.

That little adventure had me sweating all the way to Bourges. I took out my notebook and wrote my latest travel tipassume nothing. Check everything. Ask questions at the first sign of a problem. The problem: I thought I was taking an autobus to Paris, on the opposite side of the station. It wasn’t until I was about to board the autobus, four minutes before it was set to leave, that I decided to ask other travelers in line. I only asked because I noticed, finally, that the bus didn’t match the number printed on my ticket. Luckily, one man was an off-duty SNCF employee who called someone, typed in a door code to get me to the other side of the station faster, and helped me wave down the conductor, then yelled after me that they were waiting. That was the hope propelling me as I flew down those steps. Lesson: learned.

Just when I was breathing normally (a good hour later), we stopped in Bourges and I noticed everyone and their warmly-dressed dog getting off the train. This was supposed to be a direct trip to Paris, so I had nothing to worry about. I sat back and closed my eyes. Yet, a worry tugged at me and, so, having learned from the near-disaster not an hour before, I asked one of the last passengers leaving the train, a portly older man with a friendly face. “Excuse me, I’m going to Paris,” I said. “Do we…have to get off?” My ticket indicated nothing about what I should do. “Yes!” He told me. My heart hammered. That was close. “Well, uh. Was that written somewhere? I didn’t see it.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. Naturally. “Follow me.” We boarded another train, this one old-fashioned with skinny corridors and close-together seats set in individual cars with overhead baggage storage and curtains for privacy.

I could finally relax. Travel tipif everyone is getting off the train, get off the train. Or perhaps: pay attention to your surroundings. If I hadn’t trusted my gut, I have no idea where I would have ended up. Certainly not Paris.

I needed to decompress, and a walk around Strasbourg in the cool air and bright sun was the way to do that. After the river, I walked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s one of my favorites, jaw-dropping in its enormity, gorgeous in shades of orange and teal. It’s the sixth-tallest church in the world, described by Victor Hugo as a “prodige du gigantesque et du délicat.img_7715

In the next few days I climbed the 332 steps to the top twice, the view was so nice, and each time I could hear the cellist who often plays in front of the cathedral.

I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment on Place Gutenberg, a famous square that was familiar from when I visited Strasbourg for the first time with Mary in December. We were there for the Marché du Noël, and this same Place was then home to the Portuguese section of the Christmas market. There I discovered pastéis de nata–sweet custard tarts with flaky shells–and hot orange juice, and went back for seconds…and thirds… The city was gorgeous, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but I loved it just as much here in February. What it missed in Christmas decorations it more than made up for in lack of tourists.img_7555

The apartment was charming. I could see the building when I stood on the cathedral’s platform, and I could see the cathedral from the front door of the building: it was a thirty-second walk away. I heard the bells chime from my balcony. Travel tip: when finding lodging, prize location. It was quite cold when the sun went down and the wind (which terrorized most of France this weekend) ripped through, but my uber-central location made it easy and enjoyable to get dinner or drinks every night, and I would have easily traded amenities for the treat of having the cathedral practically on my doorstep.

Strasbourg’s German history makes this city unique, and unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled in France, in Strasbourg I heard German spoken all the time, saw it on signs, et cetera.

As a linguistics nerd, I also find the Alsatian dialect really interesting. The French spoken in Strasbourg shows phonological differences from standard French but is particularly interesting in its lexical variety.

I was surprised to hear my Alsatian dinner date speaking conversational German with the server at a traditional restaurant we went to. “Everyone knows some German here,” he said shrugging. C’est normal.

I had munstiflette for dinner, the dish that may have been partly responsible for my return to Strasbourg. Who knew that munster cheese is not necessarily a lifeless orange block from the grocery store? Not I, until I visited Strasbourg. Other French-German specialities include choucroute (sauerkraut) served warm with sausages; schnitzel, Alsace wine, pretzels, apple strudel, and tarte flambée. Basically a thin-crust pizza with cream, onions, and lardons, tarte flambée is like other French foods in that, if you try one at an average restaurant, you’re likely to be unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about. If you find the real thing though…you will wonder how such a simple combination of ingredients leads to something so incredibly delicious.

Eating out was also a treat because of the service. Everywhere I went, people treated me with surprising warmth and familiarity. I’ve heard that Northerners are known for their friendliness, and based on my first encounters, I’d have to agree.

Strasbourg (or Alsace) seems like a good place to live, and it might be even be a reality. With the program I’m currently here teaching with, I have the option to request a contract renewal, and I have one choice for place preference. We’ll see if this gets my vote!

For now, I’m glad to have traveled alone like this. I never have before, unless you count taking a few flights and being picked up at the airport. The sense of independence it affords is exhilarating. Until the next, Strasbourg!