Pisa: My favorite Italian city becomes yours

Chi orienterà le mie vele in mezze al mare?

Who will orient my sails in the middle of the sea?

Ovidius, Fasti, 1.466

AFTER living in Pisa for nearly 3 months during my first job as an Au Pair last summer I’m proud to say I’m no tourist to the city. Out of all the places in Italy I’ve visited; tiny Tuscan towns, mountainous trails by the sea, pizza in Naples and navigating my way through narrow Genoan and Venetian streets, in the end Pisa sits at the top of my favorite places in Italy.

Perhaps it’s because of the warm welcome I received from the family I lived with, or perhaps it’s the city’s balance: less than an hour from the sea – from which you are still able to see the mountains. Perhaps it’s the city’s size: small and quiet, yet home to one of the best Italian universities, easily reachable from other metropolitan areas (less than an hour from Florence, and 2-3 hours from Rome). It gets a good amount of tourists, yet you’ll primarily find them around the tower, and certain parts of the city center. Perhaps what gives Pisa its charm is the river that runs through the city’s heart, carrying a history that dates back several millennia.

Pisa rivals Florence in its beauty, is home to the oldest botanical garden in the world, birthplace and home of Galileo Galilei and although it is located further North, it still carries a relaxed feeling that you’ll find in Central and Southern Italy. Pisa lies in the region of Tuscany, it has an international airport, a bus route to the sea, a city center small enough to explore by foot, and numerous hostels, Airbnbs, bed and breakfasts, and hotels. Because of it’s university and airport, you may find it a fairly international city.

Where to stay

From my Airbnb, a large breakfast full of pastries and desserts

B&B Villa Liberty II Lauro

At 65 euro a night, Villa Liberty II Lauro is a short 15 minute walk from the train station. The B&B is a perfectly romantic home located in a residential area of Pisa. Although it is a bit far from the tower (about a 40 minute walk) it is in a nice neighborhood with a post office, beautiful church, cafes and a delicious pizzeria on the same street. I never actually stayed here, but I remember passing it by several times and feeling a bit envious of the guests

Airbnb

I highly recommend checking on Airbnb for a place to stay. I stayed in Pisa for a weekend with my boyfriend and we found a wonderful stay where we were served a large breakfast located in a lovely ‘600s building with frescoes in the city center about 15 minute walk from the leaning tower. Depending on the room you find on Airbnb, the typical pricing for one night will probably be between 30-100 euro.

Safestay Hostel

Within a few steps of the train station, you’ll find Pisa’s Safestay hostel welcoming you with flags from all over the world. It costs around 25 euro a night, and has a lot to offer such as large indoor and outdoor spaces, game tables, and bar & restaurant.

What to see

I. The Arno River

Life as an Au Pair at points could be extremely exhausting. Chasing two kids around, constantly being flooded with a new language. Whenever I had free time on weekends or after a day of work, I would find myself on the viale delle piagge, a beautiful wooded walkway along the Arno. You’ll feel like you’re one of the locals, and it’s the perfect place to gather inspiration for a story…

II. Chiesa di San Michele degli Scalzi

Along the viale delle piagge you’ll find another leaning building, dating back to 1178. It’s worth seeing as it’s out of the tourist area and in a beautiful location along the Arno river. You might even see a wedding take place if you’re lucky!

III. The Museum of Ancient Ships

As someone who is interested in anthropology, and loves learning about ancient cultures and how/ why people in a certain place reacted to and created their environment, my visit to the Museum of Ancient Ships provided me an incredible learning experience. Not often does one find a museum with all the archaeological objects still existing in the place where they originated (Pisa). The museum had lots of interactives and thoughtful design elements that made the history of such an important city easily comprehensible. The museum was created not only for adults in mind, but children as well. It probably ended up being one of the most well done and interesting museums I’ve visited. There’s lots of information, but don’t feel bad if you can’t see it all.

IV. Corso Italia

Corso Italia is the main shopping street in Pisa. It’s beautiful buildings are filled with high end boutique clothing, bookshops to spend hours reading in, restaurants, and gelato. It’s super easy to reach, as you just go directly straight from the train station in Pisa Centrale, across Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II onto the cobblestone street with no cars. You may find yourself people watching in a cafe, walking by a fountain, or smelling a delicious pizza from the somewhat hidden L’Arciere. If you continue straight down the street you’ll reach the Ponte di mezzo, a beautiful bridge that crosses the river. On the opposite side of the river you will find even more quaint shops as well.

V. Teatro Verdi and Free Concerts at the Sapienza University Concert Hall

Follow your ears and you’ll find music. One night as I walked down a street, I came across the sound of music, so I walked up the steps of the unknown building and came into the entrance of a grand music hall. I asked the man that awaited me for entry to the concert, and he offered me a free ticket. After looking all over google maps for the building and what I found was Pisa’s Sapienza university Orchestra, so I assume they offer free concerts! I also recommend Teatro Verdi for Operas, Concerts, and many more shows.

VI. Keith Haring’s Tuttomondo and other street art

A little known fact that I discovered while living here is that Pisa has a lot of great street art, and graffiti. Spend an afternoon walking through the streets and see what you can find.

VII. The Marina di Pisa

Lose yourself on a beautiful white marble beach in crystal clear water, and you’ll wind up asking yourself are you dreaming? The answer is no. In less than an hour for a cheap bus ticket you’ll arrive on the rocky Marina di Pisa. Walking further down, you’ll eventually reach sand. You may be surprised to hear that the beach is completely free, all you need is a towel and suit.

VIII. The World’s Oldest Botanical Garden

Connected to the University of Pisa, and just a few steps from the leaning tower, the world’s oldest botanical garden is an oasis from the tourists. I found it to be surprisingly quiet. For a 2 euro fee, you can view a beautiful garden, walk along ponds, pass through a greenhouse, and even step inside a small museum. I spent an entire afternoon here, exploring and drawing.

IX. Instituto Linguistico Mediterraneo

Learn Italian above the city’s central Piazza, Vittorio Emmanuele II. After 4 weeks of class, I felt much more confident speaking in Italian. The school also offers activities outside of class such as wine tastings, trips to a pizzeria, among other activities. The class is four hours every morning with a coffee break halfway through.

X. Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina

XI. Piazza dei Miracoli

You can visit Pisa’s famous Piazza dei Miracoli for free or pay the entrance fee to view inside the historic buildings, and learn more of the history. One of my favorite buildings was the baptistery of Saint John, because of it’s view from the window across from the cathedral, and it’s echo; a tour guide had demonstrated this by singing separated notes that (with the acoustics of the building) were layered on top of each other in such a way that I had thought multiple voices were singing.

XII. Giardino Scotto

A serene park located along the banks of the Arno river, Giardino Scotto houses sculptures, a small playground, and an outside theater used for showing films, music, dance and performances. It resides in the heart of the city center, and is a great place to relax after walking through city streets. Connected to Pisa’s Teatro Verdi, the daily shows begin after 9:30 pm and cost 5 euro or less.

XIII. Luminara Festival

One night a year Pisa has it’s Luminara Festival. On June 16th, all the houses along the Arno river turn out their lights and put candles in the window, the Leaning Tower of Pisa lights up for the only night the entire year, and people gather along the banks of the river. The festivities celebrate the eve of San Ranieri, the city’s patron saint.

Homeward Bound

Welcome to my 40-page masterpiece of 2019. After 4 1/2 months of travel, writing, photographing, and being immersed in a new language (and the Italian sea) I created this “edited diary” of my adventures. In it you’ll find poetry, drawings, a short story, favorite song lyrics that pulled me through the hard times, and entries from the diary I carried with me.

My Process

IT BEGAN bent over a desk typing words into my computer, trying to pinpoint the feelings of uncertainty spilling out in little tears in my eyes.  Writing.  Finding a way both to process and recharge my energy, and give myself the confidence I needed to make it through each day.  My first days in Pisa, Italy were nothing if not uncertain. Writing was something I could turn to, to take control of my situation, instead of just wallowing in feelings of unknown and inability to communicate.  Throughout my trip I took enough time everyday to both let go of these feelings and learn to be present with them.  Writing became something that defined my trip.  I began spending weekends cross legged on a bench writing stories, thinking in feelings and images and using words to depict those sentiments.  In the end, I counted more than a hundred pages of both typeface on the computer and script in my journal.  Sometimes I stood and sketched in a museum and found my peace there.  Other times it was sitting on the grass in a garden in Tuscany.  After 3 months in Pisa I continued to travel, and thought about writing a story people would be moved by. After thinking of stories to write, I realized my experience was simple.  It was moving, and it was my own.  I could tell it as true as possible, as felt as my own personal feelings, while using my voice.  The messiness was the process that my writing could capture.  The messy feelings, the things that didn’t make sense, the uncomfortable moments were critical to the result that came out.  

When I came home for the holidays and had some time, I began pouring over the recent writing from my trip, and chose this acclimation to a new home, Pisa, to be the story.  I shuffled through sketchbook pages, and realized how many of the illustrations reflected my feelings at the time.  There was a marvelously detailed drawing of a bench, with a splendid morning light being filtered through the trees that I depicted, and interesting enough the bench was the subject of a short story I had written at the time, and I hadn’t realized the connection.  There were other sketches that I connected to and collaged through the pages, and even picked out photographs to sketch. Collecting both the writing and illustrations, I began to visualize the book.  The book wouldn’t be a chapter book or a story book.  Instead, it lent itself well to a diary. I find diaries to feel more personal, but sometimes even more interesting and relatable because of the truth to it.  In the physical making of the book, I knew I wanted it done by hand.  I wanted to collage everything together because I find collaging lends itself well to telling memories: like scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, yearbooks, my story was both coherent but also a picked and chosen collage of memories. Good memories that would resurface during the time, the songs and words that helped me get through, interlaced with things I was experiencing, and from there I built my story.  My mind thinks in imagery but works in words.   Not only that, but collaging is a process I enjoy.  I enjoy using my hands to create the result, and see it unfold in front of me. I used illustrations to help the flow of the story, because I believe without visual, writing has a more difficult time being felt.  I wanted to play with the words and word placement, allowing some words to pop out and be seen more than others.   I formatted the writing for each page on the computer and made a mock-up book out of 20 pages of paper stapled together making 40 total.  I printed out my writing, and photocopied some of the sketches: touching them up where they needed with a pencil.  I scrolled through photos from the trip and picked ones that resonated with me and with the stories.  I wanted to start with an entry I wrote before the trip about “departure”, and how we tend to forget about the good things we have. 

In the past I have tended to only tell the good memories, but this time, I wanted to include some more difficult memories to show that my dream took risks, it took work, and hardship, and I would be playing everyone and myself if I didn’t include some of those moments.  It was honestly hard to let go of some of the memories (both the good and bad) enough to share them with others, but they were crucial to my experience, they exposed more of the truth and complexities of the experience and not to include them would feel phony.  After gluing all the pages together, the writing, the drawings, some of the pages I decided to rip out the drawing choices and switch them with another page.  In the end, I reached a point of satisfaction, I removed the staples and photocopied the front and back of each page of the book.  I scanned all the pages onto my computer as well, and made an online document that would be more accessible.  In the end, I gave copies to my friends and family, my supports.

Suggested donation amounts to @MV-Weth on Venmo or mary.wetherbee@gmail.com on Paypal: $5, $8, $15

October 8th, an ode to Italy

An excerpt from my diary

It always takes me about 3 months to fully adjust to a new home I think. And I think it was this morning that it really struck me how beautiful Italy really is, and how the deeply rooted medieval structure of each city actually has it’s benefits. It encourages walking and biking because many cars nowadays can’t fit through the narrow streets.

The first thing I saw as I left the new gates in front of the house was how the light illuminated the colorful buildings, and the white laundry hanging from the clothesline, and its contrast. The morning sun made everything more colorful and splendid against the pure blue sky. An old man biked down the street, hazy with the saturated orange and pink colors of the buildings hanging in the air, reflecting and bouncing off each other.

I could see a translucent curtain in front of the doorway slightly blowing in the breeze, and the brilliant roses and flowers, pink and purple poking out of their shadowed backdrop and into the sun. And lastly, I remember passing beneath the olive tree whose leaves seemed to glow with magic, a little rubbing off onto my head each time I ducked beneath it to walk by.

I did start to feel a little homesickness, missing fall at home, but today I was reminded how much of me loves Pisa, and these little Italian cities that still have these somewhat limiting medieval structures, yet people thrive in it and use it’s advantages and make it their own, manipulate it. Or go with it, beautify it, blossom from it.

il rapporto

a writing from August 3rd

I should start writing, and paying closer attention to how I begin becoming acquainted with a language and culture, the two are inseparable, I believe.  I’m starting to normalize the language, the sounds, the lilting syllables, extended for emphasis, sometimes the tones that sound almost whiney, because it’s so expressive, and the deep booming sounds like that of incantations. Every sentence with a destination, and the tones in a perfect match. In some ways I feel like I’m more advanced in the language, but in other ways I’m on my knees.  I can speak, but when there’s an opportunity it confounds me, and I can’t find the words that I’d so easily speak softly to myself as I walked and explored the city. I’m beginning to understand where to put emphasis, where to create tone and be expressive when I’m feeling it.

Lido di Camaiore

random thoughts from days on an Italian beach

Lido di Camaiore, colored pencil

It’s weird to be in a place so dreamlike, staring off into the distant mountains, waves relentlessly rising and falling, pushing you forward and pulling you back in the trough, hearing the laughter and splashing of kids, and feeling weightless floating in the sunny sea.  Contemplating my future, trying to turn myself into something, foolishly.  Why can’t we live without needing to “be” something, why can’t we just be, why can’t we just live.

Moments later I’ll be pulled back, out of the trough that is my mind, perhaps by a shout of one of the boys, or by the end of a thought. And I’ll realize where I am, and how I’m being innundated with words that sound familiar as if trying to remember a dream, and then I give up, with still the words flowing in and out of my ears. Reminding me where I am, and reminding me that even though I’m here, I can never truly be a part of it.  I will always be an observer of the scene, because resting in the sea while staring off into dreamy blue mountains isn’t a normality for me, It’s the people that don’t need to look twice at their surrounding, it’s those that swim in it, that are a part of it. 

The beach, is this mix of perfection and hell.  You’re in this beautiful place, blue mountains, in the not too distant horizon, with cool sparkling waters refreshing your feet that were burned by the sand some moments ago, and the salty waters mix with your spf 50 sunscreen that will sting your eyes for the next 30 minutes, wash off in the water, and end with you being sunburnt to a crisp.

After a few of these disconnected thoughts, slowly I noticed how cold the water started to feel, so I worked my way back to the shore. I began to realize that there are little pockets of warm water, where the water absorbs more sunlight, you just have to feel around for it, take a step here or there, stick out your leg, idk maybe it’s a metaphor for something.


July 25th

I was presently looking out the window while sitting on the train. Rolling through the tuscan hills, my eyes were lit by bright boxy houses each with it’s own field of green, a lush mountainous backdrop behind it all, and limitless blue skies that spoke of languorous days lasting an eternity.

But what struck me as we sidled by a lane of trees, all a dark blur to the unfocused stare I was giving the window, what struck me was that even by gazing out the window upon a view so awe-inspiring, I could see a ghost-like reflection of the window behind me.

It struck me that oftentimes while going into the world that lays ahead of us, there is still this unrelenting reflection of what we carry from the past.

When time stops

For me, travel, like everyday life in one’s hometown, has it’s ups and downs. There are moments of boredom, waiting around for a train or a reservation, moments of reserve, not feeling up for the crowds, the hundreds of languages washing over you as you try to make sense of the ancient sights sitting right in front of you. When I draw, time stops. When I draw I become part of the moment, I am simply “seeing”. In a way, it is a form of meditation, I forget my fears, my worries, and feelings of inadequacy, as my eyes scan the world in front of me, in search of a composition that suits me. I find a bench, preferably in the shade, and begin examining every detail, first the dark shades, the shadows, and then where the light hits. I begin to map out shapes, keeping in mind where the background of an object might peek through. I think about the direction of the lines, and then how I will create marks. Long loose lines, or scribbles?

Hostella terrace, Rome
Orto e Museo Botanico, Pisa
A view from Villa Bourghese, Rome
Colosseo, Rome