ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

Leaning Towers

Leaning Towers
by Martin Stott

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio          help Need audio help?

It can't be many places in the world where you're welcomed with an explosive forty minute firework display the night you land. Just lucky timing though, it seems. It's the June festival of San Ranieri--the patron saint of Pisa and an amazing time to be here.

All along the banks of the river Arno that runs through this beautiful city, the electric lights have been switched off and the houses decorated with 70,000 candles. The river side is heaving with thousands of festival goers and looks spectacular in the flickering lights.

The following day a special San Ranieri festival service is held in the city's cathedral. The 11th century church is beautiful--a masterpiece full of masterpieces, worth coming all this way for in its own right.

But of course most people are here on tours to see the building next door--and they come from all over the world with their guides.

We're standing of course in front of the famous leaning tower of Pisa. Boy, is it impressive--and I'm not the only one to think so.

Tourist: "It's just most magnificent. I didn't believe it would be leaning so much. It's as if somebody had had a birthday cake and the candle they put in it had been tilted to one side. It's absolutely wonderful."

tower base
The base of the tower, piled with counterweights

The base of the tower looks like a building site -- two huge cables attached to the second floor seem to be holding it up. It's in a pretty fragile state. Back in 1989 it was closed to the public because engineers feared it was finally about to topple. They've been trying to work out a way to save it ever since. I managed to persuade the site manager Paolo Heineger to break the rules and let me up a couple of floors.

We are now going inside the tower at the ground level. Here we are inside. In this room at the base of the tower you can see some of the instruments which are installed--incremeters, levelometers..here we are going up and you can feel the fact that since the tower is tilting, while we progress up the stairs we feel this tilt.

You find yourself leaning don't you. It's the weirdest thing.

Stott: You find yourself leaning don't you. It's the weirdest thing.

Heineger: "Now we get out from here although we are only about 23m high up the tower which is about one third of its total height the view is good."

Paolo tells me they started building this cathedral bell tower in 1173. From the very beginning it started sinking. They stopped half way to give the spongy alluvial soil underneath time to settle--a hundred years to be precise. But it didn't seem to help much. By the time all six floors and the belfry were completed at the beginning of the 14th century it was leaning five feet and just seems to have continued moving. Now it's 3 times that. But not for much longer perhaps. Engineers have found that by drilling holes into the soil underneath the high, north side of the tower, they can make the ground sink and bring the whole structure back. So far they've reduced the lean by an inch--back to where it was 25 years ago. They hope eventually to straighten it by 2 feet, adding 350 years to its life span.

It turns out this isn't the only bell tower round here to have problems because of the soil.

Stott: "Are you surprised to see a second leaning tower in Pisa?"

Person: "We were not good at building straight towers."

St. Nicholas
The tower of the Church of St. Nicholas also leans

They certainly weren't. This is the church of St. Nicholas. My tour guide friend Fabrizzio, then takes me outside the city walls to another church.

Stott: "Well, I was a bit surprised when you took me to the..."

Person: "This is an old church."

This tower, too, is sloping dangerously. But few see it. It's the famous leaning tower that people really love. And not just us tourists. Pisans too. It's like our mother, father, brother, sister, one man tells me.

Antonio Veronese runs a wonderful tourist restaurant near the tower. He's president of the Pisan tourist board. I asked him what the tower means to Pisans.

When it was built the republic of Pisa was at its most powerful he says. Then he adds, with a mischievous grin, "The people of Florence were still living in caves" And that about sums it up. You see, in 1509 the Florentines conquered Pisa and destroyed much of the old city. Pisans still haven't forgiven them. When they look at their tower it reminds them of past glories and the one big thing they've got that the Florentines haven't.

This is a wonderful city. It's small, beautiful and not too hassled. In addition it's only an hour's train ride to Florence. But don't tell anyone here you're going!

From the most famous leaning tower in Pisa, this is Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.

Leaning Towers Online

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy