All of my life I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and now I shall.
We’re in Italy, in June, all four of us, and we’ve found our funny flea-pit of a hotel. The first thing we did this morning, when we landed, was to pile in the hire car (the Mighty Bling), and head to the beach between Pisa and Livorno.
Consequently, we’re now all covered in sand and shards of that translucent spreckly-brown seaweed. Stevie keeps pulling flakes from his pocket, and the children and I have it tangled in our hair.
We’re here in Pisa’s Old Quarter for just one night, and the four of us are sharing a room with an en-suite loo, shower and bidet. The bidet enthrals the children, and they desperately want to try it out. Our room is
tiny,and the children can jump from bed-to-bed, yodelling and scattering contents of bags. Briefly, Stevie and I join in, but then one of us squashes the television controls, and the set blinks to life, throwing forth bursts of frenetic Italian and shots of some sort of gameshow.
The children are entranced, and Stevie and I keel over on the lumpy double bed to sleep.
We wake just before five, and the sun has slid a slanting finger through the gap between the shutters. I can feel it hitting my bare hip, pressing like the flat of a warm blade, and I’m smiling even before I’ve opened my eyes.
We’re in Italy. In Pisa. And we’re going to see The Tower. I think about being sixteen, and learning about the Piazza del Duomo in History of Art lessons from a fat, glossy grey textbook. I remember staring from the window in the stuffy classroom, out over the Warwickshire fields, and promising myself that one day I’d go to Pisa. I’d sit in a bar, smoking Camels and wearing sunglasses and a silk scarf in my hair. I would observe the campanile through half-closed eyes, and I would laugh at the tourists with their silly photo-poses. I wouldn’t be seen dead being so uncool.
The children don’t wake easily, a night of travelling and a day of beach and sea has exhausted them. We kiss their shoulders and blow raspberries on their necks, and when tenderness doesn’t work, we propel them into the shower.
‘Why do we have to have a shower,’ they say. ‘Why can’t we have a bidet?’
We leave at six, armed with a map of Pisa’s old quarter, and directions from the handsome but sad-faced concierge.
‘Ees two-minute walk,’ he tells us. ‘No more.’
We thank him, and cautiously mention the lack of bed, and the mouldy sandwich in our fridge, and the absence of drinking water.
‘I feex,’ he says, mournfully.
The hotel is on an ancient narrow road, paved with stone and with room for just one car to pass. The pavements are barely a foot across, and we ignore them, meandering up the road instead. People keep floating by on bicycles, their bells tring-tring around every corner. The city smells exactly how I imagined it might – sun-warmed oregano and thyme; jasmine and honeysuckle and the base city-notes of drains and exhaust and cigarette smoke.
We catch glimpses of deeply lush gardens through tall, wrought-iron gates – rhododendrons and clematis beneath orange and lemon trees in vast stone planters. The old city wall slips in and out of view, and the despite the cars, the city feels timeless.
We’re ravenously hungry, and keep spotting lovely-looking ristorantes and trattorias, but it’s too early to eat. We follow our instructions, and round a corner into a beautiful square. Two white-clad nuns carrying armfuls of dark-green fabric scuttle by, nodding at our smiles, and winking at the children.
‘Were they real nuns,’ asks Ellie, staring after them.
‘Yes,’ I say, but break off and stop, staring.
Jess tries to pull me onwards, but I point. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘There it is.’
We can see the top two tiers of The Tower, like an improbable cake above the houses of the square, and we all start hurrying, as if it might disappear.
‘Quick,’ says Stevie. ‘This way.’
We burst onto the Piazza del Duomo, our sandals slapping, and we slither to a stop at the sudden sense of space. The Tower – Torre di Pisa – is in front of us, its stacked marble loggias gleaming white-gold in the evening sun.
‘Wow,’ we say. ‘Wow. It’s beautiful.’
To our left are rows of tourist-tat shops, and they are shutting up now, testament to the departure of day-trippers. African street-sellers eyed us, but don’t approach – probably exhausted by a day of hustling. We stand and stare, and stare. I never expected the acres of green grass, nor the might of the Duomo and Baptistry and Tower together, each fiercely separate on a page in a text-book, here so vitally and powerfully linked.
I want to tell the children how the square was known as Piazza dei Miracoli, and that Galileo came here to do some thinking, and that it’s all been here for nearly a thousand years and is very important. But I can’t, because the children and Stevie have legged it, and are trying out camera poses against the Tower.
I watch them for a moment, the way they balance on the shiny black-painted railings, freeze-framing improbable poses and laughing, shouting instructions at each other.
‘Move! No! Not that way!’
My stomach gives an enormous hungry gurgle, and a couple next to me look over in surprise. I shrug.
‘Fame,’ I say.
‘Si,’ they reply, uncertainly.
Then one of the children call.
‘Mum! Mumm-eeee. Come on, come here. You need to do the thing. The photo thing. Come and do the thing, with all of us.’
‘Wife,’ says Stevie. ‘Hurry up. I look a prat. Come and look a prat with me.’