Monday, May 23, 2016

Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Located in Pisa, Italy, it was built over a period of about 200 years beginning in 1173. The tower originally served as the bell tower for Duomo di Pisa (Cathedral of Pisa), which is located beside it.

Galileo Galilei, who was born in Pisa and who both studied and later taught at the University of Pisa, is said to have dropped two balls of differing masses from the top of the Tower (which leaned even in his day) to demonstrate that they would fall at the same rate.

The Tower of Pisa is about 185 feet high and contains just under 300 steps in an uneven, winding, circular staircase constructed from stone. The top floor is the bell chamber, containing seven large bells, and providing an expansive and panoramic view across the city.

Although the staircase is not a particularly difficult climb, you should be in at least moderately good physical condition to attempt it. There is no handrail along the steps (important to some people), and there is also no handicapped access or elevator. So if you have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, you will probably not be able to go up inside.
The shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as seen from the Tower
The shadow of the Tower, as seen from
a window partway up the staircase.

Additionally, climbing an uneven spiral staircase inside a tilting tower can lead to a strong sense of dizziness. If you are susceptible to this sort of thing, you will want to be prepared, or forego the climb.

For security reasons, bags, purses, backpacks, etc., are not allowed to go up into the Tower. Lockers are provided so that you can secure your belongings while you are inside.

Pisa is about one hour's drive from Florence (about 52 miles, 84 kilometers). On our trip to Italy in 2014, we visited Florence in the morning; then, after lunch at a friendly outdoor cafe, we set off for Pisa for the afternoon.

In advance of our trip, we had purchased "skip-the-line" vouchers, which we were to exchange at the site for tickets to go up inside the Tower. These vouchers cost around $35 and guarantee you entrance to the Tower within a certain time frame -- our appointment was around 4:30 in the afternoon. Because we were driving ourselves, we also had to deal with Pisa's traffic and parking. So we dropped off one of our party to fetch the tickets, while the rest of us tried to find a legal parking spot.

Photographing the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Tower is tall enough that it is
hard to fit it all into a single photo.
Although the vouchers would allow us to "skip the line," it turned out when we arrived that there was no line to skip. This might have been because it was late in the afternoon, or we might just have gotten lucky. But there really was no long line like you see at many other tourist spots in Italy. In fact, the person who was holding our place while we parked the car actually got up to the Tower entrance at one point. But since the rest of us were still not there, she allowed a number of others to go ahead of her. We still got in very quickly when the rest of us arrived from parking the car.

(Parking the car was an adventure in itself, and netted us two Italian traffic tickets with fines of 125 euros each. To help prevent this from happening to you, whether in Pisa or any other Italian city, read our post on the subject.)

Climbing to the top of the Tower takes about ten minutes. As noted earlier, the climb itself is not too, too difficult. But if you are injured, handicapped, or very out of shape, it will definitely not be easy. Be aware, too, that people traipsing up and down the stairs for hundreds of years (how many people is that?) have worn down the stone very unevenly. You need to watch your footing!

Tourists at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
At the top of the Tower, you are treated to a sweeping, panoramic view of the city of Pisa, and of the Tuscan landscape beyond. In addition, if you stop to think about it, you are sharing the stage with history -- standing in the same spot where Galileo himself stood is rather awe-inspiring! You're permitted about 15 minutes at the top of the Tower to explore and take pictures, before you have to begin your descent in order to make room for the next group.

Click here for some Pisa tours you might like.

Here are a few more pictures from our own trip to Pisa:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Tourists pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Almost every tourist who visits Pisa
has a picture taken of them "holding
up" the Leaning Tower.

One of the bells at the top of the Tower of PisaAt the top of the Tower of Pisa

View from the Tower of Pisa
You can see for miles. The view is
spectacular in all directions.

Traffic Tickets in Italy

The sign for an Italian ZTL zona a traffica limitato, or limited traffic zone
The sign for a ZTL. The second sign specifies a few
exceptions, such as vehicles for the handicapped
and emergency vehicles.

If you are driving in Italy, you will obviously need to be aware of some of the rules of the road. One of these rules -- which snares innumerable foreign tourists every year -- is the "limited traffic zone."

The limited traffic zone is an area, normally in the heart of a city, where casual traffic is prohibited. Only vehicles with a valid permit -- such as delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, and vehicles owned by residents of the area -- are permitted to drive in these zones. Any other vehicle is illegal and will incur a (usually hefty!) fine.
Most Italian cities and towns have these zones, which are designated as "ZTLs." ZTL is an abbreviation for "Zona a Traffico Limitato," which means "limited traffic zone." They are designed to help prevent downtown traffic congestion, as well as to keep motor vehicles and their damaging emissions and vibrations away from delicate buildings, which can be 1,000 years old in some areas.

The ZTLs are clearly marked, but you might not see the signs if you are distracted or not familiar with Italian traffic signs. The zones are enforced with cameras that capture a photo of your license plate as you enter the restricted area. If you are driving a rental car, the local police will contact the rental car company to obtain your name and address -- and the rental company will charge you an additional 30-50 euros for the "service" of providing your information to the police. These charges can show up months after you've returned the vehicle and left Italy. Look at your rental vehicle contract -- in most cases, it will specifically state that they can do this.

Then, sometimes as much as a year or more after you've left Italy, you will receive a traffic ticket in the mail instructing you how to pay your fine. On our trip to Pisa we received two such tickets, with the fine on each being 125 euros. The times of the two violations were only 4 minutes apart, and they were on the same street. Apparently as we were looking for a parking spot, we went around the block and unknowingly violated the same ZTL twice. 

Whether or not the city actually attempts to collect these fines varies from one city to another. We understand that Florence and Pisa are among the most aggressive in attempting to collect the fines from foreigners. Other cities may simply ignore the violation when they discover you are a foreign tourist, and you may never hear anything about it. (Or, more likely, you are charged by the car rental company to provide your information to the police, but then you never receive an actual ticket.)

If you are driving in Italy, it is well worth it to be aware of the ZTLs, and to respect them. Ignoring these rules can be a costly mistake.