Our final day in Pisa and an opportunity to explore some of the city’s less well known sights. Our first stop of the day was the University of Pisa Botanical Gardens (Orto botanico di Pisa) nestled on the street behind its more famous neighbour, the Leaning Tower. Admission to the gardens and botanical museum is €4 and we were pleased to discover that it had recently re-opened its doors to visitors.
The university gardens were originally built on the banks of the River Arno but were relocated to their present position in 1591. They are noted for being the first botanical gardens in Europe and were the inspiration of the physicist and botanist Luca Ghini. The gardens gradually extended to their current size of three hectares and are home to plants from all over the world so we were eager to explore. The sunshine from the previous days had vanished but although overcast it was still lovely and warm.
The gardens were originally established with the construction of a medicinal herb garden where plants with healing properties were grown, catalogued and exhibited according to their identity. The garden now includes 140 species of medicinal plants from all corners of the world.
It was very peaceful strolling through the gardens inhaling the fragrant scent of azaleas, admiring ponds filled with flowering water lilies and many other aquatic plants, mostly extinct in nature.
We continued along a path into the arboretum where we found ancient trees including a rare Chinese ginkgo planted at the end of the 18th century and a camphor dating from 1872. Alongside these rare varieties, we wandered through groves of bamboo reminding us of lovely holidays spend in south east Asia.
There are several of the earliest iron framed greenhouses built in Italy containing succulents and tropical plants all clearly labelled but my absolute favourite was the greenhouse containing the Victoria Amazonica which is the largest of the family of water lilies with leaves of up to 3m (10ft) that float on the water’s surface. These were not flowering but reminded us of our visit to the wonderful Uppsala Botanical Garden two years earlier where we were fortunate to view them in bloom.
To round off our visit we enjoyed a self guided tour of The Botanical Museum, housed in the Scuole Botanica. The museum retains its original exterior appearance and contains a library, a gallery of specimens and a collection of ancient microscopes used for studying and preserving seeds. It was also interesting to view a glass cabinet containing birds nests which had been found in the garden and catalogued alongside drawings, portraits of botanists and other artwork.
My verdict, a delightful small garden to visit and an oasis of calm after viewing the famous Leaning Tower just around the corner. The garden’s website suggested booking a timed slot in advance but we took a chance and managed to get in straightaway on a Monday morning in August.
Whilst walking back along the Lungarno Gambacorti (riverside embankment) we stumbled upon the beautiful small church of Santa Maria della Spina. This tiny Gothic church was originally built as a simple place of worship for seamen who would go there to pray for a safe return. In the 14th century the church was enlarged and came to house a valuable relic from the Holy Land. The relic was supposedly a thorn ‘Spina’ from Christ’s crown and this is how the church took its name.
The enlarged church needed to reflect the value of its relics so the best Italian artists of the time were invited to work on its sumptuous decorations. By contrast the interior is exceedingly plain but as the church doors were firmly locked we were unable to peep inside to see for ourselves.
Returning to the hotel to collect our luggage, we stopped briefly to view a mural on the wall of the church of St. Anthony between the railway station and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. This striking piece of art was painted by the young American artist Keith Haring in 1989 just months before his death from AIDS. The artwork is entitled Tuttomondo with its theme of peace and harmony reflected through the links of 30 figures, each representing a different aspect of peace in the world. Facing the artwork is the Keith Art Shop Cafe where you can sip a coffee whilst admiring the installation.
Our weekend hotel reservation included a late check out of 2.00 p.m. so we gathered our belongings before checking out and walking along to the airport, taking less than 20 minutes.
On entering the departure terminal, it was necessary to pass through a disinfectant spraying arch before making our way through to security and into the airside lounge, which was crowded as several flights were due to depart around the same time. We eventually found somewhere to sit until it was time to board our own flight back to Leeds-Bradford. This departed on time and appeared almost full and luck was on my side once again as I had been allocated a window seat in an emergency exit row, providing me with a little extra leg room.
The flight was smooth and I enjoyed gazing out of the window at the cotton wool like clouds on our way back to northern England, where we landed slightly ahead of schedule. After disembarking the aircraft in the usual way, I was rather surprised that in these days of social distancing we were then packed liked sardines onto shuttle buses when the terminal building was literally steps away!
That aside, it had been a lovely weekend break in Tuscany and being our first overseas trip since lockdown, one I’ll remember always! There’s definitely more to Pisa than just its iconic Leaning Tower and it made an excellent base for visiting both Florence and Livorno. I do hope I might have inspired some of you to take the plunge and start travelling once again as if you’re like me, I’m certain you’ll feel much better for it!
Until next time …….
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