Market day, every day in Pisa!

August 26th, 2006

When in Pisa, see the Leaning Tower, the famous Torre pendente. But the trick is in the timing - better early in the morning than in the noonday heat. Arriving with throngs of other travellers in high summer, we gazed, amazed, roasting with all the rest: Pisa’s splendid marble Duomo and the majestic, round Battistero are indeed wonders to behold. This assembly of architectural wonders are clustered together on a flat field, called the Camposanto. It may have been a distortion of the hard, shimmering Tuscan sun, but it even seemed that the elegant Baptistry was at a slight tilt. Someone in the crowd behind me, perhaps a bit tired of the scene in general, piped up:  “What else is there in Pisa?”

I was looking for a market and signs that life goes on beyond tourist zones, so we returned to Pisa on a cooler morning to see more of this important Tuscan city. Italian towns often hold their market day once or twice a week –or even once a month for antique markets. Waves of flapping, pointed-edged skirts and fringed tablecloths frequently dominate weekly markets, interspersed with house-wares and fishing tackle. Pisa has an arcaded space for the shirts, jeans, pots and pans, but an adjacent open air food market dominates the Piazza dele Vettovaglie, supplying shoppers with fruit and vegetables every day. The vendors’ stalls are spread across an intersection of walking streets at the heart of Pisa’s old town, tucked in between the university buildings and the banking and shopping arcades.

In the middle of the Piazza, I took a deep breath: melons lined up shoulder to shoulder, trays of just-picked peaches and little green local pears, ‘Pere Cosce‘, perfumed the air. Come closer for a sample sliver of sun-ripened melon, Grazie! Vendors arrange red bell peppers, onions large and small, fringy fennel bulbs, and perfect oval tomatoes –all in rows and ready to grill for antipasto platters. Fragile zucchini blossoms are sold on a few stalls, others display new garlic and potatoes. The Tuscan passion for parsley can be satisfied with healthy bouquets of prezzimolo. Ever on the move, I settled for a chunk of foccacia and a box of plums, then continued to explore this historic city.

Pisa’s past as a major maritime power, the rival of mighty Genoa in the 13th century, set the city apart, not only in commerce but as a crucible for artistic activity. Influential architect and sculptor, Giovanni Pisano was the first in a line of Pisa’s artists who worked in Italy’s early gothic era. The city of over 90,000 people is still a busy crossroads (the airport close to the center now has connections to New York), continuing in its tradition of trade and industry.

This quick taste of Pisa acted as an appetizer –our next visit will be on a Wednesday to take in a farmer’s market with more medieval ambiance, set in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.

What else is there is Pisa? Beyond the tower and impressive Piazza dei Miracoli, dip into Pisa’s history, stroll under the arcades and along the Arno, cross the broad Piazza dei Cavalieri to a neighborhood trattoria on a summer day….and don’t miss the market!

Notes: The city literally lights up in the middle of June with a festival for Pisa’s patron saint, Rainier, with Luminara.  Lamps and candles light the Arno, and torches line the streets where music and dancing precede a splash of fireworks against the summer sky.  Also note that Pisa has a monthly antiques market (along with Arezzo, is one of the best spots for Tuscan collectibles and antiques).

Best Bites, Pisa: I studied the menu posted outside Osteria dei Cavalieri, just a few steps from the historic Piazza. It was appealing, but crowded with locals in mid-July, graduates celebrating their last day at the university.  Instead, we booked a table at La Clessidra (The Hourglass), via Santa Cecilia 34, a quiet wine shop serving honest (and inspired!) dishes paired with Tuscan wines.  A memorable primi (first course) combined paper-thin slices of smoked tuna, surrounded by carrot ‘spaghettis’ ribbons, all subtly dressed and topped with chopped almonds. We will return –in a cooler season –for more bites of Pisa’s inventive cuisine.

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