Road & Travel Magazine - Adventure Travel  Channel

Travel Channel
Adventure Travel
Advice & Tips
Airline Rules
Bed & Breakfasts
Climate Countdown
Cruises & Tours
Destination Reviews
Earth Tones
Family Travel Tips
Health Trip
Hotels & Resorts
Luxury Travel
Pet Travel
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Spa Reviews
Train Vacations
World Travel Directory

Automotive Channel
Auto Advice & Tips
Auto Buyer's Guides
Car Care Maintenance
Climate News & Views
Auto Awards Archive
Insurance & Accidents
Legends & Leaders
New Car Reviews
Planet Driven
Road Humor
Road Trips
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Teens & Tots Tips
Tire Buying Tips
Used Car Buying
Vehicle Model Guide


ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: A Piece of Pisa, Italy

La Dolce Vita Beyond the Tower

by Susan Van Allen

The Tuscan sky put on a twilight show, complete with rosy clouds and amber rays, as a pair of nuns crossed the River Arno’s pale stone bridge. The nuns eclipsed a couple at the bridge’s center who fell into an embrace. Students wearing cool wraparound sunglasses glided by on bikes as women in fashionable wool suits sauntered arm in arm. I’d arrived in Pisa just in time for the passegiata – the early evening stroll.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

And oh yes, there was that handsome man standing close to me with an expectant look on his face: the cabbie waiting to get paid. Even this reality check didn’t break the spell cast on me only a half an hour after landing in Pisa. The fare for the 15 minute ride from the airport to the doorway of my city-center hotel was only seven euros.

Every year millions of travelers dash into Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli – the “Field of Miracles” piazza which is home to the city’s 12th century triumphs: the Duomo, Baptistery, Camposanto, and the famous Leaning Tower. They snap photos, pick up schlocky souvenirs and dash away. The town is one of the world’s most famous “tourist quickies.”

I go more for the La Dolce Vita style than the “quickie” when it comes to Italian travel. From the moment I landed in Pisa’s small, hassle-free International Airport, my plan to start off my Tuscan vacation by immediately indulging in the simple slow rhythms of Italy began to work. What followed were heavenly jet-lagged days, as I poked around to find what lies beyond Pisa’s main attraction.

What I discovered was a part of town most tourists miss, even though it’s a short walk from the tower: the heart of the historic center. This area is home to the town’s other 12 th century treasure, the University of Pisa, which still flourishes as one of Europe’s most prestigious academic centers.

The neighborhood’s look is a sublime blend of arched cobble-stoned streets, Gothic churches and Romanesque palazzos infused with the vibrant energy of young bike-riding students. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was writing about when she called Pisa “one of those small, delicious towns of silence.”

View from the Royal Victoria Hotel

My accommodations at the Royal Victoria Hotel were the ideal setting for me to take in the city as travelers on the Grand Tour had centuries ago. Run by the Piegaja family since its opening in 1837, the rambling palazzo features huge marble staircases opening up to grand salons and a rooftop terrace where guests can order up wine and enjoy the view. My spacious single room (bathroom across the hall) cost only 65 euro, and included a lavish breakfast buffet served in the hotel’s gracious dining hall.

The creak of fruit and vegetable carts along with merchants’ “buon giornos” woke me in the morning. It was my cue to tie on my scarf, walk around the corner, and blend with the locals at the daily market. I wandered the harvest display of giant porcini mushrooms, inhaling the sharp smells of aged pecorino cheeses and the sweet aroma of hot pine nuts from a paneficio where Pisa’s specialty pignole cookies were being baked.

It was easy to be lured away from the signs that pointed to Il Torre (The Tower). Camera-toting tourists streamed by me as I headed in the opposite direction to visit a mini-gothic masterpiece: the Santa Maria della Spina church. It was pouring rain as I approached it - perfect to admire the intricate rooftop as water streamed off its carved pinnacles, angels and saints and then gushed out the mouths of its gargoyles.

Another diversion around the corner from my hotel was The Borgo Stretto, the historic center’s main walkway where 19 th century storefronts offered enticing displays of shoes and lingerie, gelato and candies. I slipped into one of the oldest caffes on the stretch, Salza dalla 1898, for a pick-me-up cappuccino and a few homemade chocolates served in their elegant back salon.

The best place for me to rub elbows with the locals (literally) was at the Vineria alla Piazza, steps from the market, where diners are seated at long wooden communal tables. A chalkboard outside lists the daily fare, which changes according to what’s fresh that day. Waitresses in denim mini-skirts, t-shirts, black tights and boots expertly pulled off the casual-sexy look while serving fantastic salads and pastas to a lively cross-section of clientele: mammas with their bambini in strollers, boisterous university students, businessmen greeting each other with the traditional double-cheek kiss.

A “join the famiglia” vibe attracted me to the many small trattorie and osterie in the area, all which offered three course dinners with wine for 30 euro. My favorite was Osteria Cavalieri, where in a cozy alcove lined with wine bottles, I enjoyed taglioni con funghi – pasta with a light mushroom sauce.

Dining Room at Hotel Relais dell’Orologio

Before splurging for dinner at the Hotel Relais dell’Orologio ( Pisa’s only five star), I peeked around at the upstairs rooms. The former 14 th century tower house has been meticulously renovated, blending Baroque-chic style with the building’s original Renaissance frescoes.

“You are… I don’t know if there is an English translation for this word…,” said the waiter, as I finished off bisteca fiorentina in the hotel’s jewel box of an intimate dining room, “You are solare. It means you are…”

“Cheerful?” I guessed.

“No… deeper than that. Like… it means you are from the sun… deeply happy…”

I always enjoy the flirtations of Italian waiters, and he didn’t have to go further for me to agree with him. The perfect word for how I was feeling after having spent a couple of days of blending in with authentic Pisan life, could only be expressed in Italian: Yes, I was solare.

If You Go:

Pisa Tourism Information:



Hotel Relais dell’Orologio - 5 star
Via della Faggiola 12/14
T: 011/39/050/830361

Royal Victoria Hotel - 3 star
12, Lungarno Pacinotti
T: 011/39/050/94011

Albergo Serena - 1 star
Via Cavalca 45
T: 011/39/050/580809

Osteria dei Cavalieri
Via San Frediano 16
Closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and in August

Osteria dei Mille
Via dei Mille 30/32

Vineria alla Piazza
Piazza Vetto Vaglie
No credit cards
Closed Sundays