Pisa, the beach, and the sixth Cinque Terre town?

After touring the five villages in the first two days of our stay, we decided to make a day trip to Pisa. The train to Pisa was an easy one-hour journey from La Spezia. By not driving, we didn’t have to worry about finding parking near a major international tourist destination. There are two train stations in Pisa, Pisa S. Rossore and Pisa Centrale, the big one. We stopped at Pisa S. Rossore with a handful of other people. It was an eight-minute walk from that station to the tower grounds, a piece of cake, and about a third of what it would’ve been from the central train station. So if you take the train to see the leaning tower of Pisa, know which station to use.

The tower is what you would expect, but at the same time, it is more. It is terminally crowded, and a whole industry of flea market-type tchotchkes is sold outside the walls. But the tower itself is impressive; its’ more significant than you think and leans over much more than pictures make it look. The grounds are outstanding with the cathedral, the baptistery, Camposanto, and museum. Our ticket included access to all the buildings, which was cool because it made the visit more compelling and exciting. 

The Camposanto is intriguing, with frescos and Roman tombs decorating the place. It is at once a morbid and fascinating place. The cathedral was impressive and worth the visit. That’s saying something considering how over cathedrals I am at this point. It has a fantastic ceiling with some of the best craftsmanship I’ve seen in any of the places we’ve visited. Plus, the artwork adorning the walls is worthy of being displayed in any museum. It is so much more than the repetitive stations of the cross that so many cathedrals have. The works are religious, but they depict coronations, baptisms, and symbolic events in history and the faith. Then there is the architecture and sculpture, which is also top-notch. I was glad to have the opportunity to spend time there, which was a genuine surprise. 

We had time to check out the museum before our timed tower entry. The museum houses much of the original sculpture and artwork from the cathedral and other buildings to protect it from the elements. Statues that were initially on the top or sides of the cathedral, tower, and other structures are there to see up close, which is excellent. There is also a sweet café on the second floor with an incredible view of the tower and cathedral. We’ll revisit that later. 

The tower is worth the visit. The 280-ish step climb is fascinating because the marble steps have been worn since the building was finished around 1270. Some stairs are more of a bowl than a step because the rock has been worn away by constant use. The tower is hollow in the middle, and the staircase follows the outer wall. Gravity messes with you, and you move back and forth between the inner and outer wall depending on which side of the building you are on. 

You exit onto an observation level, but there is one more very tight spiral staircase to climb to get to the bell tower, which is what the entire building is for, after all. We finally reached the top, and the view of the city was spectacular, even if you felt like you might fall over. The coolest thing is seeing the bells tilt and the ringers lean with the tower. The only thing I thought was missing, and this is where a guide would change the experience, was an explanation of what happened to the building and how they stopped it from moving any further. 

After our climb, we went to the Secret View café at the opera museum for a cocktail and snack. We shared a cheese plate while I had a Campari spritz and Crystal had an iced latte. As we enjoyed our treats, we observed a group of guys doing a Gangnam-style dance routine on the walkway around the cathedral with the tower in the background. I can only imagine it was for TikTok. They went on for at least five minutes; it was embarrassing, but they were not alone. Countless people were posing for “clever” photos to make it appear they were holding up the tower, pushing it over, or doing other things that I won’t describe here.  

The tower, cathedral, and baptistry from our table at the Secret View Cafe.

Crystal wanted to see a small church in town along the river, so we walked into the heart of Pisa. When we reached the river, the church was covered in scaffolding for renovations, so no photos or tours were to be had. All was not lost as we stumbled upon preparations for an annual festival of lights that was set to begin later that night. The Luminaria festival celebrates the patron saint of Pisa. All the buildings along the river were decorated with candles, and several firework barges were anchored in the river. Too bad we couldn’t be there for the night because I bet it looked terrific. It was time to catch our train back to La Spezia and call it a day. Overall, the day trip turned out much better than I expected, which is always nice.

The day at the beach

The day was just as I imagined when we first saw the beaches of Monterosso al Mare on the first day; fabulous. The water was unimaginably perfect, a little chilly but not bad, and so clear I could see the bottom even when it was over 20 feet deep. Thirty-five euros bought us an umbrella and two sun beds for the day, which was perfect. 

I had a glorious time swimming and floating around until I was disturbed by something bumping my arm. I looked and saw what I thought was a dead jellyfish; I didn’t stick around to investigate. With my arm starting to itch where whatever it was bumped me, my tranquility was spoiled; but I didn’t get out of the water. Everything was still so beautiful that I just went closer to shore. After wading around and unsuccessfully attempting to get Crystal to join me in the water, a fish mistook my foot for food and bit me, drawing blood. It was a small fish, and the damage was minimal. Perhaps it was payback for the fish I had for dinner the other night. I decided it was time to exit the water and enjoy the sunshine. Attacks from aquatic life aside, it was a perfect Cinque Terre day at the beach. 

Portovenere

Our last day in La Spezia began with a lazy breakfast before we decided to catch the ferry to Portovenere. Portovenere is often referred to as the “other” town of the Cinque Terre, and frankly, it’s one of the best. The village is positioned on the tip of the peninsula with a large island directly across the channel, making it quite the strategic sight back in the day. 

The colored buildings that are this area’s calling card used to serve as the village’s protectors, and you can see in the architecture how they would’ve been a great fortification. A large fort sits atop the hill, overlooking the town. There is an excellent stone chapel midway up and on the very point of the land. The views from the point are killer. A natural cove forms to the right with a sweet swimming hole on the ocean side that was full of people.

The chapel holds a commanding view while the swimming hole sits to the lower left.

The town is set up much like all the Cinque Terre towns in tiered streets, but the shops and cafes here looked better than almost any we saw in the five famous villages. I think the location would make for some fantastic sunrise photos as well. 

We checked out the mid-level fortress, now a chapel, and took in the fantastic views. Then we climbed the stairs and sidewalks to the upper fort to check out the view from a former watch tower. After all the climbing, it was time for lunch, so we descended to the harbor and found a great spot on the water. Our salads and cocktails were excellent and not that expensive considering the location. 

A view of the fortress from the chapel walls.

After lunch and people-watching, we walked along the shore until the ferry arrived to take us back to La Spezia. I can’t think of a better way to end our visit to this area, and I can’t recommend highly enough visiting Portovenere; it was awesome. 

Once we got back to the apartment, it was time for photo editing and laundry as we prepped for our departure tomorrow for Bologna.

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