A piece of Pisa


   The trip to Pisa was a quick decision made because I wanted to see a festival of some sort while in Italy. In Pisa, this is the festival of San Ranieri, celebrated every 17th of June. The night before is the Luminara, when 110,000 candles light up the buildings on both sides of the Arno, and fireworks are set off at 11pm. The next day, a traditional boat race is held in which four wooden boats of eight rowers row upstream to a floating platform. At the platform, a single man on each boat scales a rope 30 feet in the air to grab a flag. Sounded like fun. 

   At about 5pm, people started lining the street along the Arno. Stands with sweets, drinks and carnival food came out, and the fireworks got prepped on small rafts in the center of the river. At most, they were 200 feet from the riverbank, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This would never fly in the US”.  While sitting along the Arno, waiting for the show to start, I met a lovely couple. The man was from the US and his wife is Pisan, so I took advantage of their English to ask about San Ranieri. Neither knew his story, and it took four family members to piece together a story of a thief and a profligate who repented. I’m still not sure that their story was accurate. 

Sweet stalls sell marzipan candies and a savory cookie with Anise called Brigidini.

This small barge of fireworks was about 150 feet in front of me.


The Luminara was spectacular. Churches and buildings just glowed. The fireworks, timed to music, went on for about 45 minutes and were stunning. As I headed back to my lodging from the Arno, it began to rain. Far from discouraging the revelers, umbrellas and tents came out, and young people were dancing in the rain. I wish I had gotten them on film. 

The next morning, I headed over to the Piazza dei Miracoli to see Pisa’s most famous feature. And holy cow, does that thing lean. 

I wasn’t planning to climb it (Climb a tiny spiral staircase inside a building that’s falling over with a bunch of tourists? Great!), but when I arrived, they had a spot available in twenty minutes. So I went. Why not?

And it was terrific. So glad I went. At the bottom I took this photo which shows you exactly how much this tower leans. Freaky, right?

In addition to the tower, the Piazza houses the basilica, a Baptistry, and a cemetery. The Baptistry is famous for having beautiful acoustics, and while I was there, a docent came out to demonstrate.  Check out the link: Pisa Baptistry Acoustics

The cemetery is arranged in a rectangle with burials in the floor and walls. The inner courtyard was filled entirely with dirt brought from Jerusalem, apparently. The frescoes on the wall were receiving some badly needed restoration. 

Medieval artists were none to shy about detailing exactly what would happen to you if you misbehaved.


All of the streets surrounding the piazza were full of more sweet stalls and vendors selling everything from pet turtles to frying pans. The atmosphere was festive, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. I treated myself to some marzipan and sat out on the grass enjoying the beautiful day. 

A perfect picnic spot. All kinds of folks were sitting out in the sun against the medieval city walls.

Among the crowd of tourists pretending to push over/ hold up the tower was this fellow, carrying a rainbow flag that said “Pace”. Peace.

The Brigidini machines were mesmerizing. And I had to sample from several stalls. You know, for quality control.


After the beauty and excitement of the Luminara, the race was almost anticlimactic. It was still something to see the decorative wooden boats, but if it were up to me, I’d hold the race in the daylight hours. Still, I managed to find the most delicious gelato in all of Italy, tucked inconspicuously next to a small bar in the Piazza Garibaldi. 

The boats are lit up for the nighttime contest. My contrada (district), Santa Maria, wound up winning!

When Italy plays in the Euro cup, everyone heads to the bar.

These huge wooden boats are rowed 1500 meters upstream where one man jumps onto the platform and climbs a rope in order to win.

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