Pisa again, beyond the tower

August 10th, 2007

   What is it about river towns that draws me back? I reflected, inspired by the soft-toned facades of medieval buildings lining gentle bends of the river Arno.  Again, I crossed Pisa’s old bridges, marveling at column-edged Renaissance windows while the matter-of-fact daily life of buses and bicycles whizzed past me.  The same magnetic sensation had been at work earlier this summer in the Spanish town of Girona.  There I explored river-side medieval ateliers, shops and studios now restored and still in use by printmakers, sculptors and book-binders. In a glance through their doors and windows, one looks straight out to the river Onyar that flows through the Catalonian town, just as the Arno snakes through Pisa.  I felt a curious sensation of déjà vu.

So, unable to resist the tug to the Arno, we returned again this summer en route to a family gathering near Siena.  A pause, just a couple of days, in this historic university town gave me a deeper appreciation of the treasures of western Tuscany, its flavors and traces of Pisa’s rich past.  As I reported last year, the vegetable market is set in adjoining piazzas right in the center of town.  Basically the same vendors were still there, patiently tending red and green tomatoes, heaps of zucchini blossoms and plump plums.  I was reassured and took more photos, but this time around, I also found fruit and vegetables closer to the leaning tower of Pisa.  What? Fruit on the Campo dei Miracoli?  Well, these garlands of fruit date to about 1602.  Cucumbers on the vine, carved by Giambologna were cast in bronze, along with apples and plums - all to celebrate the Tuscan earth’s abundance.

Vegetation Motifs of Centuries Past
Click here to see full photo gallery

I delighted in discoveries of the Duomo’s magnificent carvings, on and around its enormous doors. The Duomo, the majestic church itself, was built early in the eleventh century. Giambologna’s doors replace earlier west portals which were destroyed by fire. In the last light of a summer evening, few tourists remained. An air of calm settled over the marble-faced buildings, placed neatly on the Campo dei Miracoli’s (Field of Miracles) verdant platter of manicured grass. We took advantage of the special summer hours, giving visitors access to the Baptistry and Duomo until twilight. This photo session of vegetation and grape vines inspired a good appetite.  We soon found our way toward the Piazza dei Cavallieri - only about ten minutes walk from the Duomo and leaning tower - for dinner at the Osteria dei Cavalieri on via San Frediano.  I knew we were taking a chance without reservations, but the waiter graciously brought us glasses of sparkling wine to sip for a few minutes until a table was free.  The informal atmosphere, prompt service and well balanced Tuscan cuisine keeps this osteria at the top of guide books’ listings.  I understood why as I dug into a plate of gnocchi with flakes of delicate fish: as it melts in your mouth, it lasts in your memory.

Inspired by delicious fish and our proximity to the sea, the following day we hopped on a train to Livorno - less than an hour’s ride through pines and farmland from Pisa.   We took a city bus from Livorno’s station and found our way to the central market hall, which was surrounded by canopied stalls stretching beyond it in all directions.  Heaps of  melons and tomatoes, dangling housewares and platters of aromatic ham -ready to slice - lined each street.  We stepped inside the hall, its center filled with vendors of fish and shellfish, flanked by stalls of bread, pasta and cheese.  But I was determined to see the old harbor, where fishermen sell their catch directly to shoppers.  By the time we found Livorno’s extensive marina, the sun was overhead and most fishing boats were being hosed down; the fishermen were on their way home.  Near the Fortezza Vecchia’s (old fort) slanting brick walls, I spotted a striped canopy over marble slabs, where a few fishermen still sold fish.  Change a few details, I thought, and change a few centuries, but the scene would be the same, and Livorno’s famous fish soup would be simmered for family suppers - whatever the century.

In Pisa: Osteria dei Cavalieri, via San Frediano 16. Tel: 050 580858. Limited seating, reservations suggested. Closed during August; closed Saturday noon and Sunday.

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