Some years ago, when I was still working as a concierge at a five-star luxury hotel in the centre of Rome, many curious things used to happen to me and my colleagues. So now I find myself well equipped with quite a number of anecdotes to entertain my friends and my family. And as far as I consider all of you, my dear and devoted readers, such, I’ll tell you this one now.
Let’s call it A Tale on How I Found Out What ‘pizza towel’ Means.
It was a usual busy morning in the middle of the peak season in Rome: the suffocating summer heat slaughtered ruthlessly by air conditioning turned up to its historical high, that strangling Burgundy red scarf of the uniform, the never-ending ring of the phone, parcels and e-mails coming in and out, an infinite to-do list of the morning shift and the same length queue in front of the concierge desk. And then, all of a sudden, a beam of light, or, maybe, a kind of lightning struck the day and my whole world changed forever: a couple of young and happy tourists with their perfect map of Rome, smiling gently at me, pointing their fingers at the Colosseum, their eyes full of hope and expectations, their most important question to ask me ready to be shot – ‘How can we get to the pizza towel?’
Those guys made my day and the day of the rest of the hotel staff. And they are also, in a certain way, making this story here. It is all about inspiration, you know.
That was the moment I found out what pizza towel was. Actually, it took me a while to figure it out, but I was at my best, considering the difficulty of the situation, and the necessary information was given to the requesting: pizza towel is not at all a towel, it has nothing to do with piazza of any kind, neither is it the Colosseum, nor situated in Rome or nearby.
You might have already guessed that it was all about the Tower of Pisa. Could it ever be about anything else?
So, let us sum it up some basic notions to avoid any eventual misunderstandings and point out some things about Pisa that you might find curious or even useful.
1. Pisa is a city in Tuscany, especially famous for its Leaning Tower (or la Torre di Pisa, or la Torre Pendente in Italian) situated on the Square of Miracles (or la Piazza dei Miracoli in Italian). Apart from the renown tower itself, do not miss the Cathedral of Pisa, the Baptistery and other sites placed beside and absolutely worth visiting.
a) The biggest curiosity that regards the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that it didn’t start to lean after its construction was over, but already during the works that lasted for many years. When several floors were finished, the building started to sink because of the unstable soil underneath its foundation. In attempt to level the tower, its upper floors were constructed with one of the sides being taller than the other and only after a period of time that allowed the soil under the tower to settle properly.
b) Do not forget that a special dress code is usually required to visit the places of worship, such as the Cathedral, for example: one’s knees and shoulders have to be covered.
c) You can visit the Cathedral free of charge, while if you wish to visit the Baptistery, the Tower or other sites on the Square of Miracles, you can purchase your tickets at the ticket office located to the right of the Baptistery’s entrance or online. Before arranging your visit to Pisa, it will be useful to have a look the following conditions and timetables.
2. Pisa is not at all difficult to reach.
a) BY PLANE. The most relevant airport of Tuscany, named after the illustrious Gallileo Gallilei, the father of the modern science born in Pisa, is situated here. It is very close to the city itself and the connection between the central railway station of Pisa – Pisa Centrale – and the airport is very convenient. Check here for more information.
b) BY CAR. It is possible to reach Pisa by car, for example, from Rome. There are two options for such a trip:
- take highway A1 Milano-Napoli in direction of Florence and then exit at Firenze Scandicci, taking the FI-PI-LI route. Mind that the speed limit on Firenze-Pisa-Livorno is almost always 90 km/h, constantly measured and controlled, and there’s only one line in each direction, so if there’s an accident, the road might get blocked for hours. And, unfortunatelly, FI-PI-LI is sadly famous for its frequent accidents.
- take highway A1 Milano-Napoli in direction of Florence and then proceed on highway A11 Firenze-Mare in direction of Genoa. This option is 30 km longer but the speed limit is higher and the road itself is much better. In any case the trip will take you approximately 4 hours one way.
- once in Pisa, watch out for the Limited Traffic Zone (ZTL), the area accessible only to the vehicles of its residents in possession of a special permit.
- it is very convenient to park at the pay and display parking right by the Piazza dei Miracoli in Via Vecchia di Barbaricina, 2, 56122 Pisa PI (entrance from Via Cammeo Carlo Salomone).
c) BY TRAIN. The central railway station of Pisa, Pisa Centrale, is very close to the city centre and the Square of Miracles. It also offers good train connections to such nearby Tuscany cities as Livorno and Lucca, and also to Florence and Rome. For the train timetables and tickets, refer to the official website of Trenitalia, the primary train operator in Italy.
a) the trip from Pisa Centrale to Livorno Centrale takes approximately 15 minutes
b) the trip from Pisa Centrale to Lucca takes approximately 30 minutes
c) the trip from Pisa Centrale to Roma Termini takes approximately 3-4 hours (some trains are direct, others require a change)
d) the trip from Pisa Centrale to Firenze Santa Maria Novella takes approximately 1 hour
3) The history of Pisa is also that of one of the four Maritime Republics. Together with Venice, Genoa and Amalfi it dominated the Medieval Mediterranean for centuries. In spite of this, curiously, the city of Pisa is distant from its port some 10 km. By the way, the nearby port of Livorno is the one that welcomes all cruise ships docking in Tuscany.
The story of rivalry between these two ports is unique. Pisa used to be involved in numerous war conflicts with the neighbouring Florence, thus the powerful maritime republic was not at all reluctant to do every possible wrong to its enemy every time there was such a chance. As far as the salt supplies destined to Florence came through the port of Pisa, from time to time the latter blocked them and increased the relative tax. At a certain point Florence got tired of the situation and decided not to use any salt at all for baking its bread, and thus be less dependant on Pisa. Since then Tuscany bread is famous for having no salt in it. But that wasn’t the end of the story. To defeat Pisa on its own battleground, the Medici family decided to build its own port in the proximity of that of the enemy. That’s how the city and the port of Livorno were born.
4) Pisa is not only about its Square of Miracles. The city offers a pleasant walk and its centre, introducing a curious visitor to a number of charming squares, some nice shopping and a stunning view over the Arno embankment.
- Once you leave the central train station, you will see Viale Antonio Gramsci slightly to your right. Follow it until you reach piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and Corso Italia slightly to your right.
- Corso Italia with its numerous shops will become Via di Banchi in the proximity of the Ponte di Mezzo bridge. Crossing the latter, you will find yourselves in Piazza Garibaldi.
- Head along the street called Borgo Stretto till you see Via Ulisse Dini on your left. Follow it until you reach Piazza dei Cavalieri that hosts one of the most famous and prestigious public high schools of Italy – la Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.
- Leave the square through Via Corsica that at the crossroads becomes Via Dei Mille, take the second on the right and follow Via Santa Maria until you reach the Square of Miracles.
As easy as that!
The official website of the city offers more ideas for those eager to discover Pisa on foot. In any case, be sure, that it is possible to visit the city in one day.
5) In Italy they say that ‘it is better to have a dead man at home than a Pisan at the door’. There’s no smoke without fire, and I had a chance to discover that there’s some ground for such a judgement. But who cares about how tough and stubborn Pisans may seem until they have such a miracle as the Leaning Tower!
I still remember the first time I saw it, one of my childhood dreams. I broke into tears from amusement and happiness. I wish you to experience your own deep emotion looking at the Tower of Pisa and enjoying the rest of this city now that you know it is worth visiting no less than its most splendid monument.
Knowing some basic things about Pisa and its famous Leaning Tower makes any excuse to ask one’s concierge such a hilarious question as ‘where can I find the pizza towel?’ die on the spot. It grants me some degree of certainty that no one else will ever be able to treat anyone with such a delicious story as that I told you above, making me its unique proud possessor. At least, I feel paid back for the cultural shock I was forced to experience when I first heard about the existance of a certain pizza towel. At least now we all know what it really means.
P.S. First of all, I would like to express my very special gratitude to Machs Gut (c) for his amazing pictures of Pisa.
Secondly, I would like to mention my friend Irina who, together with her 12-year old son, inspired me to write this article while helping them prepare their first visit to Italy. I wish them a safe and unforgettable trip!