It’s possible to find hidden adventures in Pisa after visiting the Leaning Tower.
The trick is finding a friend who knows the secret escapes.
When we travel and talk about being from Oregon, we brag and brag (and brag) about what makes our corner of the world so awesome. I think a few people get tired of hearing it (Tony: I’m looking at you), but we sing the praises of the Pacific Northwest because we love it dearly and know its quirky claims to fame and untold stories, and it’s so much fun to introduce other people to the place we call home.
The best friends to make during our travels are the local versions of ourselves: people who have grown up in a region, know the back roads like the back of their hands, have favorite coffee spots and restaurant hang outs, know places for visitors who want to jump off the tourist circuit, and can speak candidly to the best (and the worst) of their neighborhoods, giving insight deeper and truer than any guidebook.
Luckily for us, we met our Italian friend Kinzica during the TBU Conference in Umbria, and when she invited us to visit her home town of Pisa and see sights that most miss, we knew a trip would be in order…
Kinzica, pictured above with the statue of her namesake, a young eleventh century noblewoman who saved the city of Pisa from invasion according to ancient legend.
Kinzica the modern day woman of Pisa runs the travel blog 100 Days, a project she started when she and her boyfriend Alessandro spent time traveling abroad in India and Kenya. After visiting the Piazza dei Miracoli with Walks of Italy, we met up with Kinzica and Alessandro for a hidden skyline view of the other towers of Pisa.
First: a few pulled strings, a secret passage, and hidden stairway up to the rooftops where we could take in the Leaning Tower from afar and view the River Arno from above.
Squinting in the sun with Alessandro’s shadow keeping us company.
Alessandro and Kinzica in their hometown.
Poking around rooftop gardens and gawking at kayakers making their way down the Arno.
Next for the day: evening aperitivos at their favorite square.
Funny story: according to Alessandro and Kinzica, there are two main hang out spots in the city. The square where the nicely dressed and prim and proper folk head (Piazza Garibaldi), and then, only a few dozen steps away, the tucked away corner where students, skaters, and rough-around-the-edges folk congregate (Piazza delle Vettovaglie).
Of course, we headed past Garibaldi and on toward Vettovaglie and found ourselves in a space that could have been carved out on a SE Hawthorne side street in Portland (well, minus the ancient buildings and Roman architecture).
At Cecco Rivolta, the little hole in the wall selling wine and remarkably good beer, our group drank our drinks and polished off several helpings of the traditional finger food that accompanies aperitivos in this part of the world: cheeses, meats, cold tomato soups, fried flat breads and delicious dips.
Ted struck up a conversation with another patron, a friend of Kinzica’s, local resident (and chocolatier) Paul DeBondt, who is a fellow beer lover in this land of wine. The two of them stood wrapped up in the finer points of brew for the better part of an hour, and parted ways with the promise that we’d soon see each other again for a tour of Paul’s chocolate factory.
Once the sun set, we paid a (pictureless) visit to Osteria Melafumo for amazing seafood meal in neighboring Livorno. Heaping helpings of fresh muscles; Ted was a happy man. The four of us ate our fill and returned to Pisa to rest for the night before another full day.
From up on the rooftops, we’d looked across the valley and seen a large building hovering at the base of the mountain range. “What’s that, Kinzica?” I’d asked.
The next morning, we hopped in the car and drove to the answer…
We passed picturesque hilltop ruins and wound up a few curving roads to eventually arrive at the University of Pisa’s Natural History Museum housed at a beautiful old building still standing as an architectural remnant from Napoleonic occupancy of the land.
The University houses an amazing collection of living fish species (including piranha!), reconstructed dinosaur fossils from Patagonia, and walk through displays of ancient geological transformations of the Italian region…
The University of Pisa collection also includes the largest continental European collection of whale bones, with full size examples running hundreds of feet down the long stretch of exhibit hall.
The most fascinating of all, though, was the collection of oddities gathered during previous centuries’ periods exploration and discovery of then-rarely visited corners of the earth.
Before public museums and colored text books, internet searches, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and interactive software, these curiosities comprised the most marvelous glimpse into the wonders of the natural world that could be appreciated by mainland Europeans of the time.
How bizarre to peek through cabinets and cupboards of kiwi birds and puffer fish, salmon coral and baby human skeletons…
These halls of curiosities are open to all, but access information and transportation may be troublesome to find. We’re so grateful that Kinzica navigated the language and roads on our behalf to make the visit possible!
Following our trip out of town, we returned to the city for an unbeatable lunch at Pizzeria il Montino.
The local treat? Cecina (“chi-CHEE-na”) sandwiches: ground garbanzo beans and eggs mixed and fried, served with choice of roast beef or prosciutto on open-fire-oven baked bread. Really unbelievable. We’ll be doing our best to make this one at home someday!
Up next: a quick stop to see Pisa’s Piazza dei Cavalieri.
Kinzica and Alessandro were grasping for an English translation and came up with “Plaza of the Medieval Cowboys.” A few second later, they jumped in and corrected with “Plaza of Knights,” but we all agreed that the first name sounded better…
During a pit stop at Caffè dell’Ussero (where Ted was chided for ordering a cappuccino long after the clock struck noon) we ran into Kinzica’s father and gained an impromptu history lesson about Italian connections to the American Revolution after oddly noting drawings of Mt. Rushmore on the wall. (I jotted down new-to-me notes about Philip Mazzei, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, and gave myself a homework assignment…)
We devoted our afternoon to researching real food at its finest: artisan gelato and artisan chocolates produced locally in Pisa. There are so many tasty tidbits that I’m saving the stories for a future post dedicated entirely to the art of gourmet desserts, but let me just say, a visit to Pisa must include refreshments at De Coltelli Gelato and DeBondt Cioccolate along the Arno riverfront.
To cap off the night, Kinzica and Alessandro took us to their favorite pizza spot, ZenZero, hidden outside of the city, past ancient Roman aqueducts and fertile farmland. We arrived at dusk and spent the next stretch of hours enjoying arguably some of the best pizza we’ve eaten in our entire lives (including past trips to Italy and countless visits to Flying Pie in SE Portland and Paddington’s in Salem).
We polished off a Margherita pizza then dove right into pie number two featuring pioppini mushrooms (grown under poplar trees) and cherry tomatoes with burrata.
Ted tried the local brew, La Petrognola Sandy Ambrata Biere di Farro (made from local grain), and was quite satisfied. You could tell we’d been away from home for quite a while, though, when he spotted the familiar looking Sierra Nevada label on the shelf and almost shed a tear.
Pizza three: prosciutto with black truffle and quail eggs.
Un. Be. Lievable.
With that fresh grated cheese and perfectly crispy crust…
The best flavors of travel: good friends and great memories…
We chatted about all sorts of things: wages, education, and job prospects for young Italians. The highlights and aggravations of living in Pisa. The future of the country. The heritage of food and the excitement of a delicious find. The hopes we have for our personal futures and the obstacles and challenges that we will need to work to overcome.
Yet again, proof that shared meals and honest conversation in good company are the best experiences in the world, no matter the table, no matter the country, no matter the culture.
Before saying our farewells the next morning, the four of us stopped to see the Keith Haring mural hidden in plain sight on a random street near the train station.
Chances are, had we visited the city on our own without hospitable locals to show us their favorite spots, we never would’ve laid eyes on this quirky monument to unabashed expression of personality. And had we found simply from a guidebook, we wouldn’t have the friendships to associate with it as we do now.
Every time we revisit these photos, run into other pieces by Keith Haring, or recount tales of delicious Italian beer and pizza, we’ll be thinking of our friends in Pisa and the time they introduced us to their side of the world.
Paying Pisa a Savvy Visit Part I – Sight seeing, photos, and vertigo stories from visiting the Piazza dei Miracoli to see the Baptistery, the Camposanto, the Duomo, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Thanks so much to Kinzica and Alessandro for sharing their home and their passion for place. You can find them at home on the web at 100days. If you ever pop by Pisa, give them a hello from us, and ask if they’ll tell you the secret to the rooftop view!
Travel Notebook Tidbits:
Aperitivos: Wine + Beer + Tasty Food
Piazza delle Vettovaglie 4, Pisa, Italia
M – Th 6pm to 1am | F – S 6pm to 2am | Closed Sunday
Via Mentana, 78, 57125 Livorno, Italia
Curiosities, Oddities, and Giant Whale Bones
University of Pisa Natural History Museum – Calici
Via Roma, 103, 56011 Calci
Check the website (or have an Italian friend call ahead!) for times, directions, and costs
Cecina: Chick-Pea-Magic Lunch
Pizzeria il Montino
Via del Monte 1, Pisa, Italia
Coffee + Historical Context
Lungarno Antonio Pacinotti 27, 56126 Pisa, Italia
Artisinal, Fresh-made, Top-of-the-line-ingredients Gelato
De Coltelli Gelato
Gourmet Chocolates + Teas, Coffees, Honeys, Wines and Liquors
Lungarno Pacinotti, 5, 56125 Pisa, Italia
The Best Pizza in Pisa
Via Argine Vecchio 87/A, Vecchiano, Italia
All photos by twoOregonians. (Except for Ted and me with the pizza; that’s all Kinzica!)
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